We went to the Maple Leaf in New Orleans and there was Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, aged 71, performing his second gig of the night. He apologized for sitting down and sang about how we need to listen to the old people. His band, the Golden Eagles, was a bunch of young guys with bland expressions, looking like they had heard Big Chief's rants before. "I don't even know what I was saying," the Chief said after several songs. He reassured us it's okay that way, the lyrics just flowing out. The band put me into a trance that made me feel like light beams were coming from my palms.
Out back we sat with some drunk women who, when asked where they were from, said this is their neighborhood, that they live right around the corner. They had an Australian guy with them who they had just met that morning. One of the women flipped through dozens of photos on her phone, of her with the Australian. Then they got into a disagreement about "scrolls", which the Australian guy finally conceded are like cinnamon rolls but without the cinnamon.
After the break, Big Chief said he could only stay for twenty more minutes because the next day was Super Sunday, the only day of the year when all the Black Indians come together for a parade, a tradition the Chief claims to have started. "You all come down to Washington and LaSalle at noon and see," he said. This was all new to me, but we had seen some of the costumes from years past at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, magnificent works of feathers and beads that the curator said take a year to make.
Twenty minutes later and the Chief was still singing. Sitting down on the stage, leaning back on one elbow with the microphone held high in the air, riffing about how he owns his own house, how it took him seventy-one years to do that, and how we are coming down here with all our money and buying up houses in his neighborhood. We had expected to see, post Hurricane Katrina, a shell of a city, but instead we saw people everywhere working to fix up the old buildings. We walked through neighborhoods full of young urbanites with kids in strollers and dogs on leashes. My friend who has been living there since 1988 said it was the most surprising thing, all these people who have moved in since Hurricane Katrina.
Sunday at noon we took a taxi to Washington and LaSalle. The Ethiopian taxi driver told us to stick with the parade and not to hang around that neighborhood. All around were abandoned houses, the glass gone, the doors covered with plywood. But today, the streets were starting to fill as the Black Indians were gathering. I was moved to get out my bamboo flute and play along to the drumming of some white women who were accompanying this particular Black Indian with his burgundy plumes blowing in the wind.
But I got the sense that this wasn't a join-in-if-you-want type of event, so we moved on and found the brass band that headed the parade, the lead man marching with his umbrella, his eyes bulging. Musicians were greeting spectators with hand shakes and hugs. But every time I caught someone's eye they looked away without smiling. There were some tourists taking pictures, but for the most part, this was a neighborhood event. We talked to just one man who pointed out his friend selling BBQ, telling us it was the best in town. We asked him how many years they had done this parade. He shook his head. "Centuries," he said.
What a thrill it was marching along New Orleans style with the trombones and the drums and the tambourines and the singing when I suddenly tuned into the lyrics. Kill 'em. Kill 'em. Kill 'em. They sang. And I started thinking about all the complexities of this place and these people, who not too far back in their history were bought and sold and brutalized, whose culture is now idolized and commodified. Chase 'em down. Chase 'em down. Chase 'em down. They sang. I suggested it might be time to leave.
So we watched the rest of the parade go by and then walked away, the abandoned houses suddenly menacing. But it was just two blocks to St. Charles and a bistro freshly remodeled serving gourmet pizza and micro-brew.