Go to the Mardi Gras
Trip Start Dec 19, 2006
24Trip End Feb 22, 2007
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I joined the Wild Magnolias' second line in 1976 on my first trip to New Orleans and haven't missed a Mardi Gras since 1982 (the last one I missed was in 1981). I had met Philippe Roualt, producer of the first two Wild Magnolias albums for the French Barclay label, at a recording studio in Los Angeles in 1974 where my friend Ed Michel was mixing albums for Impulse Records, and Philippe played his tapes over the big sound system, showed me photos of the Wild Indians and the lyric sheets to their songs and chants.
My mind was blown completely-this was about the most exciting musical and cultural phenomenon I had encountered in a long time, and I was determined to experience it first-hand as soon as I possibly could. Two years later I convinced the editors of the newspaper I was writing for, the Detroit Sun, to send me to New Orleans to cover the Mardi Gras festivities, and I came to the Crescent City in our bicentennial year (remember that one?) in search of the Wild Magnolias.
Through the kind assistance of my old Ann Arbor friend Nancy Ochsenschlager I found the Magnolias at the corner of 2nd & Dryades in the 3rd Ward, holding Indian practice at the fabled H&R Bar, and followed them all day through the streets of Central City on Mardi Gras day. My account of this adventure was published in the Sun in April 1976 and rewritten and expanded for Detroit's City Arts Quarterly in 1987; it's now included as "They Call Us Wild" in my Italian Stampa Alternativa collection Va Tutto Bene / It's All Good.
I returned ro New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1977 and then missed the next four years until I made my first trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1981 and realized that it was the height of stupidity to pass up this extraordinary experience for even one more year. So I was there again with the Wild Magnolias in 1982 and at every Mardi Gras ever since. When I moved to New Orleans in 1991 I gained the opportunity to attend Indian practice on a regular basis and to go out with the Magnolias every St. Joseph's Night.
I've witnessed a lot of changes in the Wild Magnolias gang over the past 30 years, but our Big Chief is still Bo Dollis, arguably the greatest Wild Indian singer and one of the prettiest Big Chiefs of all time. Last year Bo was slowed down by illness and actually suffered a stroke later in the spring, just barely coming back from what many thought would be his death bed in the hospital to assume his powers as Big Chief and leader of the tribe.
For the past several years Bo Dollis has been grooming his son Gerard to take our his leadership duties with the Wild Magnolias, and this year it's clear that Gerard's reign is about to begin for real. Crippled by illness and the effects of his stroke, Bo wasn't able to sew his own outfit this year and came out in a suit selflessly created and sewed for him by Chief Smiley Ricks of the West Bank Indians. Bo was carried on the back seat of a small convertible, a modest headpiece created by Smiley replacing his customary crown, as Big Chief Lil Bo (Gerard) and Big Queen Rita, the other marching Indians and the Wild Magnolias second line danced and chanted behind Bo's car.
That was Tuesday morning, and we left out from 2nd & Dryades the earliest I can remember, arriving at Washington & LaSalle before noon. But on Sunday night it was Indian practice at the brand new Handa Wanda club, located on Dryades just one spot down from where the H&R had stood for so long.
The Handa Wanda is named for Bo's first recorded composition, the first Mardi Gras Indian recording with a band, made as a Part 1 & 2 45 rpm single in 1971. The club is a long open space with small bars on each side and a full-scale stage with sound system at the back end-a perfect setting for music to dance to or either for all-out Indian practice, with enough room between the front door and the stage at the back for the ritualistic confrontations and dances among the various visiting tribes and the host gang to be worked out.
Although I refuse to pry, my impression is that the Handa Wanda is owned and/or controlled by Bo Dollis and his manager, Glenn Gaines; at any rate they have a special relationship with the place, from the name outside to the Wild Magnolias photos, decorations and memorabilia posted all over the place. This has been a dream of the Big Chief for many years, to have his own place for the gang to hang out, hold its practices, and generally feel right at home in the neighborhood.
This practice, the final one before the big day Tuesday, is particularly energetic, and by 8:00 pm the joint is packed with Indians and second-liners all shouting and chanting and dancing and bobbing & weaving all over the place. There's a huge drum section led by Norbert "Geechee" Johnson and the Wild Magnolias regulars, and plenty of accomplished Wild Indian singers to back up and/or challenge Big Chief Lil Bo and his dad. The Golden Blades with the Indian Rhythm Section (IRS) attempt to invade the practice but are quickly rebuffed and repelled by Lil Bo and the Magnolia gang, a traditional ritualistic exercise which lends an edge of new danger to the proceedings.
There's a lot of characters I know at Indian practoice-Wild Magnolias second-liners I've been going out with every year since 1976, old pals like David Kunian and Bill Taylor and Chris Jones, and familiar faces I can no longer plavce with an accuracy. But it's great to be back home and in the middle of all this good craziness, and Dr Dorothy is suitably enthralled as well on her initial Wild Indian experience.
Slow motion on Monday, Lundi Gras: Dorothy goes out to tour the French Quarter Marketplace and adjoining Mask Market with Tom & Hild while I catch up on my mail at Tom's before they return to dish out another of Tom's fabulous home-cooked meals. I try to get Dorothy to go over to Frenchmen Street with me to witness the bohemian Mardi Gras festivities, but she's wiped out and retires early while I creep off to find my pal Ade at the Café Brasil, who gets me good & high and regales me with crazy tales for quite a long time. Frenchmen Street is literally jumping from curb to curb with good times and people who are by now totally out of their minds, and again I consider how blessed I am to be back in the middle of this madness that I love so much.
On Mardi Gras morning we're up bright and early and at the corner of Jackson & Dryades by 9:30 for the Zulu Parade, which has just begin its long roll from Jackson & Claiborne all the way downtown. Like last year there's a dearth of marching bands, but everything else is all out Zulu. My greatest moment is when I turn around and see my daughter Chonita in front of me and get a big hug and a lot of smiles. I haven't seen or even heard from Chonita since her mother fired me almost two years ago, and it's a truly beautiful thing to find her here at the Mardi Gras.
Around the corner at the Handa Wanda the Wild Magnolias gang and their second line are gathering at 2nd & Dryades-everyone is out early, and we're going to roll very soon. Tons of the usual welcome characters mill around in the street, and I'm gassed to see my dear pal Tom Piazza, the great author, and his companion Mary Howell, one of the few fearless people's lawyers in New Orleans. Another one of my favorite New Orleans writers, Roger Hahn, is near at hand, and when the Golden Eagles roll up a little later, there's Henry Petras, Dave Kunian, Bill Taylor and the rest of the beloved Big Chief Monk Boudreaux minions.
We take an unaccustomed route: over to Jackson, up to LaSalle, up to Washington, with the Big Chief riding in the convertible car, and it occurs to me that this parade has overtones of a traditional jazz funeral procession but with the honoree still alive to revisit his im[portant spots, like the space at 1960 Jackson where the house Bo's mother lived in and where he grew up used to be.
Washington & LaSalle, the site of the former Kemp's Bar, the Dew Drop Inn and Skakespeare Park where the Indians always met on Mardi Gras day, Is pretty quiet when we arrive before noon. The park is now a FEMA trailer park and there will be no Wild Indians dancing in there today. A couple more Indian gangs roll up to the corner but it's even quieter than last year. Pretty soon the Wild Magnolias roll out down Washington back to Dryades to meet the Golden Eagles by the Handa Wanda.
Now our uptown duties are completed, and we dig out the rent-o-car from the peoples' yard where we'd paid $25 to get rid of it (it's been $10 at that spot for years) before the Zulu Parade and head downtown to the Backstreet Cultural Museum to join the fun down there. They're waiting for Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. to come out, and Big Chief Victor Harris and the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi. I check things out, leave Dr Dorothy with some good people and creep back to the car for a little power nap.
When I wake up it's time to go over to the Mother-in-Law Lounge at 1500 N. Claiborne for Eric Cager's neighborhood Mardi Gras blow-out in the 7th Ward. Dorothy tells me she talked with Sylvester in the middle of the madness on St. Claude and he'd confessed that we was masking as a drunk. Rockie Charles, the President of Soul, has just come off the stage next door to the Mother in Law lounge, and Ms. Antoinette is behind the bar inside pouring drinks in her Baby Doll outfit. I'm supposed to bring the ReBirth Brass band onstage, but the sound system has been put away by the time they converge in front of the stage to kick off the closing set of music for the afternoon-and besides, they need no introduction to this crowd!
Totally exhausted now, we retire to Tom & Hild's to enjoy our final night in New Orleans for this year and pack up for Amsterdam.
I forgot to mention in my last New Orleans report that my old, old friend and mentor, the great American poet Edward Sanders, is in town for the Mardi Gras with a second agenda of making a recording of his new work centered on Hurricane Katrina with Mark Bingham and a carefully selected band of Crescent City characters at Mark's Piety Street studios in the 9th Ward. I saw Ed when he arrived from the airport on Thursday night (2/15) and came straight to the Gold Mine Saloon, where Bingham had been waiting for him through my set with Dr D and Dr Prof Barry Kaiser. Dave Brinks, who presented Ed in concert at the Gold Mine two nights after Mardi Gras, sent me some great photos of him & Ed on Mardi Gras Day. Thanks, Dave!
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