By Edwin Buggage
New Orleans: The Most African City in America
New Orleans is rich with traditions. and today is celebrating its 300-Year Anniversary. Every year, people from around the world come to experience the enviable and unmatched splendor of this City, a cultural jewel that shines around the globe. This gem has given the world jazz, great cuisine, brass bands, the second-line, the Black Masking Tradition (Mardi Gras Indians) and bears so many other unique traditions that make it, unlike any other place.
Paying homage to many of these great traditions are seemingly endless festivals year-round in a place known for celebrating life and the uniqueness of a culture that has been created, cultivated and nurtured. But most recently, the City has reached a crossroads in its direction and is fighting to preserve these sacred traditions and heritage of arguably the most African City in the United States.
Inside the Voices of Congo Square
Chief Shaka Zulu, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters, who’s past Big Chief includes the legendary Allison “Tootie” Montana. Shaka is a lifelong member of the cultural community and calls himself more than simply a bearer of the culture, but a keeper of it. He recognizes the importance of telling the story of the City through the lens of those who created and live the culture. This oral tradition is especially important post-Katrina and now during this tricentennial year. Many have come to New Orleans, sampling small pieces of it, calling themselves experts and taking many of the traditions and cultural practices out of context, blurring the lines and distorting their history, meaning and significance. On April 20, 2018, Chief Shaka Zulu, will be premiering his show “Voices of Congo Square” to fill this void. It is not only entertainment but education in the truest sense exploring the origins and the essence of these great traditions of New Orleans.
“New Orleans Voices of Congo Square was created to address a need in the market for a comprehensive artistic articulation of the evolution of New Orleans music, dance and performance. A new way of looking at the lived culture of indigenous New Orleanians; Voices of Congo Square is a piece that represents the African, Carnival traditions of New Orleans” says Chief Shaka Zulu who is also serving as its producer.
“This sacred backstreet culture presents the pulsating Live New Orleans Jazz Second-Line Band, the mystical beauty of the Masking Black (Mardi Gras) Indians, the rhythmic traditional movement of electrifying dancers, and all of the things that make New Orleans so unique. All of the glory of New Orleans, the mystery of New Orleans is there on stage that most people would never, ever see. Everybody danced at our show”, says Naimah Zulu – Producer.
The Importance Archiving and Preserving our History
Over the past 32 weeks in the pages of Data News Weekly, www.bnola.love Making a Better New Orleans; BNOLA, founder Glenn Jones has presented a groundbreaking and historical series called “42 Tribes” that focuses on the Black Masking Tradition; highlighting its Big Chiefs and chronicling the stories of the various tribes. This oral history is important in understanding these traditions so that it can educate the community inside and outside the City about these historical traditions.
Today this is needed more than ever. BNOLA is on the forefront and this new movement describes itself on its website as a new marketing and outreach opportunity to build prosperous bridges and collaboration between prominent, community involved media outlets through Innovative Entertainment Event Marketing, Promotions, and Community Outreach. BNOLA is the collaboration of several media outlets networking for NOLA in one hub online. This hub consists of News and Education, Entertainment, Health and Post-Positive/Spiritual Posts, community teaching community video vignettes, dedicated to and about the people of New Orleans. BNOLA was created to cater to an under-served segment of the community. To foster strong alliances and lasting relationships locally, regionally and even nationally, “collaborating media community efforts is a must for community success,” says BNOLA.NET’s founder Mr. Glenn Jones.
From the Slave Ship to the Ownership: Building and Benefitting Economically from Our Culture
New Orleans is a City where on any night you can sample great music or during certain times of the year experience amazing festivals filled with the world-class talent that the people of this City possess. But there is an underside of this because many of our great culture bearers or keepers of culture are not well compensated and struggle to make a living solely off their talent. This is the case with musicians, singers, visual artist and those in the Black Masking Tradition (Mardi Gras Indians).
It is important to note that there is a need for Black-controlled festivals and events that help support the cultural community. On March 18, 2018, the Inaugural Black Masking Cultural Festival and Feather Fundraiser will take place. This event is done in association with Data News Weekly, French Market Association, Cumulus Broadcasting, BNOLA and Beulah Productions. At Crescent Park Pavilion from 3-7 PM will be the first of its kind in the history of North America, a Festival solely dedicated to the Black Masking Tradition. The celebration continues into the evening hours at Tipitina’s from 9 PM to 1 AM with a Feather Fundraiser featuring the Legendary Cyril Neville, Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias and other musical guests.
Raising Funds to Preserve Black Masking Culture (Mardi Gras Indian)
In the Black Masking Culture (Mardi Gras Indian) after Hurricane Katrina, many of the older members stopped masking observed by Chief Shaka Zulu, whose been masking for 19 years. And this was not because the lack of will, but the price of the feathers skyrocketed from 75-100 dollars a pound to 450 dollars. According to Shaka, there’s only 2 places to get feathers locally. He then decided to create a business called “Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Gallery” located in Treme’ where he has an event space and also sells feathers at a lower price point and also holds benefits to purchase and assist those who are in the Black Masking Tradition to have the supplies to make suits.
“What I saw was as a participant in a culture. But as we create the culture we are not participating in the economic opportunities that it brings to the City. I was one of the first to create a business inside of this culture by starting to be a distributor of the feathers,” says Big Chief Shaka Zulu. “I saw it as a way to preserve the culture because what I was finding that you had a lot of the elders that are not making suits anymore, thinking they were burned out, but what I found many of them were on fixed incomes and they couldn’t afford to mask. So, I got in and brought the prices down and two create fundraisers to buy feathers and give them to certain people who cannot afford them, so they can make their suits. So that was my way of giving back to preservation.”
300 Years Later…The Struggle Continues
It has been quite a journey in the three centuries of New Orleans; from the time the indigenous people that came here before the Europeans, Africans who survived slavery, Emancipation and Reconstruction, Jim Crow, desegregation and the structural and institutional barriers that still exist among racial lines. Through all this from Congo Square to today have created an amazing culture unlike any in the United States and the world for that matter. And it seems befitting in this 300th Anniversary to recognize that the Black contribution to New Orleans not only matters but is an integral part of what makes them not only a special place to not only visit but to live as well.
Today this has sustained this City; the living culture is being threatened and much of the vibrancy, the drumbeat, and lifeblood that pumps the heart of the City giving it life is being drained away. The City and its neighborhoods no longer look the same. Treme’, where an impromptu second-line for some is now considered noise and where people who move into historic neighborhoods from out of town feel what is already there is not worth preserving. And where historic intuitions and practices are under assault in a changing City; with the net result being perhaps that the Black Masking Tradition, musicians and other culture bearers and keepers of traditions may become museum pieces and artifacts showing how people use to live and things they use to do.
So, in this time, we must remember that our history is important, and it must be told by us. That the Black perspective must be not only heard but respected, and as we celebrate our culture we must understand some of its origins lie in the tradition of protest. “Super Sunday started out as a protest. You look at the bridge downtown on North Claiborne Baba Jerome Smith of Tambourine and Fan protested under the bridge because a lot of the businesses closed down depressing the area and changing the neighborhood,” says Chief Shaka Zulu about the need to re-engage in the spirit of uplifting and preserving the traditions and heritage of Black New Orleans.
In New Orleans, it is estimated that visitors spent over 7 billion dollars in New Orleans in recent years. And many of those who provide entertainment and other services cannot afford to live in the City or in some instances practice their cultural traditions. And the City government often does not provide enough help to support those who work in the cultural economy. “It’s amazing that most countries support their culture economically because they understand people come to see these aspects of the culture. We are still waiting on the City of New Orleans playing that role,” says Shaka. “The cultural keepers not being able to afford the culture they created is in some ways is in danger because the materials are not affordable for them to create their suits. This and so much of the everyday life of Blacks and the neighborhoods and families who make this City what it seems to be in danger of no longer existing. If this happens then New Orleans ceases being the special place it is and would be like any other City in America. It is something worth preserving and cherishing, our history and who we are as a people.”
Culture Bearers at a Crossroads: To Survive or Thrive in “New” New Orleans
Moving forward in a City with an uncertain direction, the question is where will the next great Chiefs of the Black Masking Tradition like Tootie Montana, Bo Dollis, Monk Boudreaux come from or the musical genius of Louis Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair or the Neville Brothers with their musical wizardry. Or the Black Men of Labor who not only hit the streets with their annual parade but are dedicated to community uplift and providing programs for economic opportunities around job readiness and small business development.
It is in this where culture can meet commerce, that the future lies for the keepers of the great traditions of New Orleans. That events such as the Black Masking Cultural Festival or others ran, owned and operated by Blacks that the place of Black Culture cannot only stay alive but thrive in a changing New Orleans.