1860-1919- Big Chief Becate Batiste Krewe of Wild West
1935-1947- Big Chief Alfred Montana 8th Ward Hunters & Monogram Hunters
1945-2005- Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana Yellow Pocahontas Hunters
2006-2017- Big Chief Darryl “Mamut” Montana Yellow Pocahontas Hunters
2018 – Present- Big Chief Shaka Zulu Yellow Pocahontas Hunters
New Chief: Same Tradition
Big Chief Shaka Zulu has been Masking for 19 years, but has been a part of the African/Haitian music culture in New Orleans through his father Zohar Israel since he was a small child. Chief Shaka began stilt dancing from a very young age and was a part of the Skull and Bones Krewe. Currently, Chief Shaka owns an African Drum and Dance Arts company, soon to debut an original stage production called the “Voices of Congo Square”. Chiefs’ first experience in the Black Masking Culture was playing drums behind Big Chief Smiley Ricks and his band “Indians of the Nation”. Chief said, “A lot of Chiefs came together for this music project that traveled to give a musical rendition of this Black Masking tradition of New Orleans”. As a youth Chief also toured internationally with the world renown Donald Harrison Jr. as a drummer in his band “Congo Nation”.
Chief found out how sacred this culture is when he first started inquiring about patches and how to sew. He started watching the late great Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana and admired the artistry and his ability to lead men. What intrigued Chief most about his early involvement with Yellow Pocahontas is that they didn’t perform. Black Masking was mainly a secretive street culture which was a change from his inherited African performing culture. Although Chief Shaka was inspired to start masking by Tootie Montana who is credited with evolving the modern-day culture into one that focuses on the artistry of the ceremonial suits (the prettiest), most of his knowledge as Chief came from the tutelage and shadowing of Big Chief Darryl Montana. This sacred ancestral 168 years of history that Chief Darryl was able to impart upon Shaka was passed down from his great grandfather Becate Batiste one of the earliest recorded trailblazers of Black Masking Culture. Big Chief Darryl “Mamut” has faced and overcome many challenges to forge this culture forward. Taking this indigenous culture across the world and as Chief Shaka says, “retiring at the top of his game (48 years masking) with that last Blue Suit, I had to take a step back and say wow!”.
Chief Shaka has been highlighted in award-winning periodicals such as the Huffington post, National Geographic and Data News Weekly but the breadth of Chief’s knowledge and expertise has been offered through his familys’ oratory and hands-on education and Indigenous Fine Arts Gallery Golden Feather. Over the course of 8 years, through Golden Feather’s relationship with the touring company Road Scholar which busses retired educators and writers to New Orleans to learn about New Orleans history from a historian and culture bearer, Big Chief Shaka has given lectures to well over 32,000 people.
Just a week before Carnival I had the honor of sitting down with Chief Shaka while he was sewing, and I asked him:
Q) How do you feel about the momentous honor of becoming Big Chief during the Tricentennial of New Orleans?
A) I have mixed emotions. One is just being honored to have Big Chief Darryl Montana give me that platform, that position, because I know what it takes. Dat Cat been around a long time puttin it down on a certain level for a long time. If you look at his suit last year, you’ll see that he walked away at the top of his game. The other part of it is the fright of just walking in the footsteps of giants. Coming in and being able to continue what was already set in stone by the Montana’s. People can say what they want about Darryl Montana or Tootie Montana but when your behind them constructing, you know that they were puttin it down.
Q) What was your first memory of Black Masking Culture?
A) I came from a Masking culture before I was Masking in this particular culture that we call Black Masking Indians. Stilt Dancing was a part of our family tradition. We’ve always been a part of the Black Masking Culture from an African perspective. I’ve also been initiated into the culture to where for us, it was a way of life. So, I’m pretty much carrying on a tradition and also extending it to another part of Masking, so it was very easy for me to understand the commitment, the loyalty, the endurance and the African relevance because I was already from a young child immersed in that culture anyways.
Q) What’s the difference between your family’s traditional African culture and the Black Masking Culture of New Orleans?
A) I don’t really think there is a difference. When you look at the narrative in terms of the origins of the tradition, one thing that very clear is as an African people born in New Orleans we have always worn feathers, before we even got to the land that we call New Orleans today. We have always worn beads. If you look at 10,000 B.C. we can go back as far as that in terms of the history of us wearing beads and feathers.
Q) Have you seen changes within this culture and its traditions that need to return to its roots?
A) The unique thing about African tradition is that it has always been complex, and change is inevitable, but I am a firm believer of elders and the wisdom and understanding of elders, and if you don’t honor that then you’ll find that your culture will change into something else. I’m fortunate because I haven’t seen that in Yellow Pocahontas, Chief has always remained traditional to Yellow Pocahontas Hunters.
Q) This Mardi Gras what are you looking forward to?
A) I’m looking forward to this Carnival being the beginning of the next 300 years of this city that we call New Orleans and having a voice. When you have a voice and you put that voice on a certain platform you actually change the narrative.
Q) What platform are you using to change the narrative?
A) We created Voices of Congo Square(Theatrical Production) which is telling the story of the last 300 years of the African Carnival traditions of this great land we call Congo Square. This year will be the first year of changing the narrative to us being relevant in history for our great great great grand kids to know that we did have a place in next Tricentennial.
By Glenn Jones