August 2005. New Orleans, the once culturally vibrant and enigmatic city lay in waterlogged ruins, the victim of one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit America. It was a city acclaimed as the home of jazz and jumbalaya, and most prominently, the carnival of Mardi Gras, yet Katrina left the city a mere shell of its former self.
It was an act of God that left many across the world questioning the survival of the city. And yet, five years on amidst the continued social issues and decreased population, the culture of New Orleans, and Mardi Gras in particular, has remained undiminished.
It is a festival and set of traditions we know little about here in the UK, based around a complex web of African, French, Portuguese and English influences gathered over hundred of years, and intertwined to form a celebration unlike any other across the world. I wanted to see how a city is such a state of disarray, and in mourning for the thousands dead, had maintained such a strong sense of Mardi Gras culture, and celebration of tradition through the tragedy. Surely, as the city was washed away, so too were the customs that had defined it?
Talking to Ian Mcnulty, a resident of New Orleans who experienced the destruction of Katrina first hand, it became clear that Mardi Gras, and the traditions that accompany it, were far more deep rooted than I had initially understood.
“Mardi Gras is really this spontaneous expression of the city’s culture” he told me. “The whole massive community is out, and it is something which all income levels can participate in, all races and backgrounds. Certainly different parts of New Orleans do Mardi Gras differently but that’s part of the pageantry of it, that there are so many different expressions for it, that people interpret their cities culture differently and Mardi Gras is the stage for that. It feels like the entire city is converging, just seems to be swept up in the joy of it.”
The real test for the sustainability of such an expression of culture came six months after the 2005 disaster, with the first Mardi Gras after Katrina. It is a moment, a converging of city spirit, that has become a seminal moment in the city’s annals of history.
Mcnulty speaks candidly about the emotions that surrounded the celebration.
“The first Mardi-Gras after Katrina was an extremely important Mardi-Gras, emotionally and symbolically for the city; it was this expression that we’re back.”
He spoke of the raw emotions that permeated the city that still resembled a post-war bombardment, and with only a shadow of the population returned.
“In a lot of areas there were still doors hanging off hinges, piles of debris in the streets, a lot of cars overturned and when Mardi Gras came around there was a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety, but really for the people who were back in New Orleans there was no question about it, as Mardi Gras is more than just a party, it is a cultural expression and if that was allowed to flicker out, it would be a very grim time in New Orleans.
I think culture has been stimulated by the catastrophe, and people have relied on culture to build their recovery
“People who were here threw themselves into it with gusto and maybe the costumes were not as great as they were in the past, and the floats certainly were recycled and patched together for the parade but the spirit was intense. It was a defiant declaration, and one with a big smile on the face of it.”
It is this unshakeable spirit that has come to define the city in its post-Katrina years. As the city prepares for the fifth anniversary of Mardi Gras since Katrina, as grand a pageant as before the hurricane, there is one aspect of the carnival tradition that is often lost amongst the larger processions and customs that are the popular focus, yet remain at the traditional core of what the Mardi Gras carnival was originally intended to celebrate.
I stumbled across the Mardi Gras Indians in a passing reference, yet their secretive and richly historical foundation makes them one of the most stimulating aspects of the carnival, and I was intrigued by them as a unique sub-culture that have remained relatively ignored in the Mardi Gras canon. These are rituals that date back to the 1700s, and traditionally embraced by those from African American, and Creole American backgrounds. These small tribes of men from neighbourhoods across the city, donning fantastic costumes hand-sewn of feathers and beads, parading the city like exotic birds with fantastic plumage, with chiefs of each tribe facing off in a symbolic battle against each other when they meet in the streets.
It is a captivating tradition, bringing together the tribal African traditions and music, with the carnival theatrics of Europe. I spoke to Dr Nick Spitzer, Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans, whose passion about the rich and varied culture of the Big Easy was infectious. He explained to me the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians.
“They generally array themselves as warriors or wild men of the streets. Their suits reflect both the image of the Indian but also their own personal lives. They portray themselves as these wild unobtainable spirits and they roam in groups ranging from ten to thirty or fourty and they go through the neighbourhood until they converge at one spot in the city, a crossroads, and its where the chiefs traditionally meet. When the chiefs meet they have a showdown in language that is assimilated from French, Spanish and English to form a sort of made up language.”
It is a wonderfully uncorrupted custom, and one that remains very much family orientated, with relatives often forming the tribes. The mix between the African and the Caribbean with the Creole and American tradition makes it an interesting mix, rarely found outside this set of rituals.
Yet in our fast modernising world, what place do such tribal traditions and cultures take in society? As New Orleans undergoes re-gentrification, will the core base of these traditions simply be lost, with the practical constraints of Katrina marking the end of the old festivities?
“In a funny way I think Katrina actually stimulated some return to the tradition” Spitzer tells me.
“After Katrina, I think one of the real worries was with the disbursement of people all around, that the people who actually make the music, make the culture, would not be able to continue the traditions, and there were a lot of bells going off about that.
“In fact, what Katrina did was force everybody to recognise the value of culture that’s intangible. Clearly the costumes are tangible but what’s intangible are the social relations of people who call themselves chief, who are part of the gang, and who actually make the suits and parade, celebrating the Indian tradition with all of its mythological associations.”
It is the tale of a city that has based its renewal and regrowth around the old traditions and culture that once defined it. Interesingly, rather than melting away into significance, these unique and ancient traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians served as a magnetic pull, bringing communities and the population back to a city that they had abandoned after the flood. Many of those involved in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition were the first back in New Orleans, determined to protect a part of their heritage that was so inherently linked to the foundations of the city.
Spitzer described to me the importance of this homecoming. “All these people who were disbursed across the country felt the need to come home, and I think the Indians were a big part of that. A lot of the Indians were together, as they had to regroup and reband and find one another, but the very act of doing that was indicative of their will to come back and get it together. I think they offered a model to a lot of other people that return and recovery were possible.”
“I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of problems with the city right now but in the end, I think culture has been stimulated by the catastrophe, and people have relied on culture to build their recovery, and it has been right at the centre of it.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Mcnulty. “The general form of Mardi-Gras remains unchanged” he says, “but I would say that same spirit of just giving yourself over to it, of celebrating the city and being aware of the value of the traditions is stronger now because of the Katrina experience, because of what people went through and what Mardi Gras did for the recovery.
From everyone I have spoken to, the inescapable focus is on the powerful spirit of culture in New Orleans, and nowhere is this more visible than in the spectacular visual manifestation of African-American culture through the costumes and songs of the Mardi Gras Indians. As both Spitzer and Mcnulty reveal, it is these small but significant hybrid traditions and folklore that are central to the recovery of New Orleans.
Spitzer spoke to me of his unwaving faith in such beliefs. “People have come to rely on it as serious means to motivate oneself and others to return and rebuild the cityscape. The politics are better, the schools are better, and there is a lot more hope in the city, there is the possibility there, and the carnival traditions are at the centre of this recovery. So stick that to the modern world. People are looking at this culture as really valuable, as a reason to live.”
To those who live there, and partake in all the rich culture it offers, New Orleans is much more than simply a city. While it still struggles five years on with a population diminished by 150,000 and the tragic memories that will forever be etched on the streets and houses of the city, the decision by thousands to return, after their lives had simply been washed away, speaks volumes.
Mcnulty made the decision to return almost immediately after the hurricane had subsided. “My decision to come back to New Orleans after Katrina was a heartfelt, carpe diem decision. I bleed for this city. I grew up elsewhere but this is my home now, I love the place. I built more than a life here, it was part of my identity. After Katrina it was clear the city was on its knees and you take that to heart, you take it very personally as if someone you love has been laid low.”
He continued “There really was this sweeping feeling that we have got to defend our city, we have got to go back. I was in a position where I could and if people like me did not then, who would? Someone needed to be the first person back on every block, every neighbourhood. It was a time when a lot of emotions were raw and if you felt something for the city, for New Orleans, you wanted to be back and a part of it. It was clear this was going to be a moment of historic import for New Orleans.”
New Orleans has become a city of contradictions, moving towards modernisation after disaster, yet returning to embrace its cultural roots. In a country whose claim to fame is Mcdonalds and Wal-Mart, to find a collection of people resolutely maintaining their cultural sense of self and history, even if it is through feathers and beads, provides a glimmer of hope for cultural plurality in an increasingly homogenised society.
As Nick Spitzer so cogently summed up “that is the lesson of Katrina, out of which the whole US is beginning to learn. It has made them stop and say, wait, if Washington and Wall Street no longer offer us political leadership or a fair return in our investments in life, why do we go in that direction? Maybe we should be turning a little more towards our cultures and our community.”
Let the carnival commence.