Monday, January 16, 2012

Indian Giving


It is late afternoon on a Sunday when I meet up with a coworker for a drink. It has been a bad weekend for me, having just fought with a friend a few days ago and then falling ill soon after. Will, the coworker in question is something of a younger brother I've always wanted whose sunny disposition always cheers me up, so I am eager to meet up with him as a respite from my foul mood.

The bar he selects is located deep in the heart of the predominantly black neighborhood we work in. It is on a major artery through a crime-ridden section of New Orleans. Will is a young, white transplant with a heart of gold who recently graduated from an ivy league school. Will is a true small time explorer, always good for pushing his boundaries and exploring the unknown.

So unknown, in fact, that one could pass right by this spot without an inkling of its existence, as I must have done so already at least dozens of times. This watering hole resembles a defunct corner store more than an operational bar. Barely a few hundred square feet, its windowless facade is obscured by a large for sale sign. It is across the street from a sprawling public housing project and the only other commercial competition on the block is a coroner's office.

"I haven't gone here before and thought we could check it out. Daniel from the neighborhood says it's a good spot," says Will nonchalantly. I reluctantly agree.

Other than the bartender, the only occupants are three heavy-set middle-aged women perched on barstools listening to Aretha Franklin on the jukebox at about 1000 decibels. We grab a couple beers and sit outside on the street divider greenbelt, which in New Orleans, frequently serves as a place of convening for parades, street festivals, chess games, or any reason at all. Though drinking in public is legal, glass bottles outside a bar is not. But in this part of town, I am not worried that the police will cite my young white companion and me.

Will and I chat about his academic plans, his personal life, work, our respective personal futures, all the things I would talk about with a younger brother. The sun is setting and I savor the moment, recognizing that one day Will will return to the East Coast to continue his studies so that he can become something great. Though I am appreciative of his potential, my sad mood has turned just a bit sadder.

As night comes and the temperature drops, we return to the bar and chat with the proprietor and barkeep. I am famished and he is eager for me to try his yakamein, a favorite in soul Chinese food, a cuisine that I have only encountered in New Orleans. He is in his sixties, a retired school teacher, naval veteran, and husband of a nurse. He states with pride that his recipe is influenced by his travels to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. I slurp it up in seconds and can tell by his expression that he is pleased; what better approval than from an Asian...

The barkeep then casually mentions that the bar will be busy in an hours' time, when the Mardi Gras Indians come in for their practice. I find this hard to believe as the bar is dead empty at this point save for Will and me. I am also skeptical that such information would be disclosed to a couple of strays wandering through his bar--it hardly seems likely that my Asian appreciation of his yakamein is suffice to witness a performance as secretive as Mardi Gras Indian practice.

***

The Mardi Gras Indian tradition of New Orleans dates back at least a century. Legend has it that the ritual commemorates the relationship between Native Americans who gave asylum to African slaves fleeing their owners. In honor of that phenomenon, a group of African-American men created a tradition of masquerading as Mardi Gras Indians, spending tens of thousands of dollars and years constructing hand-made tribal regalia, complete with ornate beadwork and ostentatious feathers of every color imaginable. The costumes weigh hundreds of pounds and while wearing them the Indians engage in a theatrical play-act involving choreographed skipping and dancing, all to the rhythm of chanting, drum beats, and tambourines.

Traditional Mardi Gras Indians are black men and membership is extremely exclusive. And, despite the extensive labor required to construct the costume and rehearse the dance rituals, Indians publicly perform on just a handful of occasions a year, one of which is Mardi Gras day. Although rogue members will occasionally pose for tourists in the French Quarter in exchange for tips, by all accounts, true Mardi Gras Indians are for the most part extremely secretive.

***

So I am awestruck when instantly at 7pm, the bar is flooded with scores of men, tambourines and drums in hand. They have left their costumes at home and instead are wearing local civilian clothes--large leather jackets, baggy pants, ball caps, some with do-rags. Mostly men, ages range from 7 to 75. Will and I are introduced to a man I recognize as a Mardi Gras Indian living legend, who has collaborated on albums with the likes of Dr. John, Tab Benoit, and one of the Neville brothers.

Stunned that Will and I have not been herded out of the bar, I am sipping my second Long Island ice tea when it begins. The congregation assembles into an elongated oval on the pink and grey checkered linoleum floors. Drumbeats sound out from the corner of the room and the entire space booms with singing and chanting in unison, unrecognizable words in a call and response pattern, that gradually crescendo into a wave of not quite music, not quite chanting, but something strange and amazing. A dance begins with two Indians at a time, skipping and hopping on one foot in a rocking motion back and forth towards eachother. Space is traded and hoots and hollers exchanged. But for the dancing, the tableau could easily pass as a snapshot from a bar scene in Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City, or some other American inner city epic. But the audio resembles something from a National Geographic episode on Native American traditions, with a rhythm and blues score playing underneath it all.

Will eventually leaves, but like a fly on the wall I sit through the entire two hour practice, perched on my barstool, completely unbothered, mesmerized by the ritual taking place before me. I am one of four obvious outsiders in the place which is now filled to the brim, and one of four non-blacks in the room. I dare not activate the camera or recorder on my phone, being held captive by this phenomenon that few outsiders have ever witnessed, and it is this captivity that finally releases me from the heartache and disappointment of the weekend.

***

In my short time living in this town I have learned that behind the charm and splendor of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras kitsch of New Orleans, there are many dark corners, some frighteningly criminal, and some just plain beautiful in an unfathomable way. In my life I have always enjoyed traveling, finding it to be a relief from the strain of normal life; there's nothing like learning about a strange new place to remind me how wonderful it is to be alive. What is nice for me in New Orleans is that I need only to stray as far as a corner bar in an unpopular neighborhood to see something strange and wonderful and totally beyond my imagination. It is because of this--moreso than because of the historically preserved buildings or the scores of restaurants--that I am convinced that New Orleans is one of the most amazing places on this earth.

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