« Program: Living in New Orleans, Part 1: All on A Mardi Gras Day

Joseph Roach Talks to Ned Sublette

A professor of English at Yale University, Joseph Roach, a former resident of New Orleans, is author of Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia University Press, 1996).

NS: Could you explain the idea of performance studies?

JR: Sure, I’d be glad to. The idea is that the theater is an expansive phenomenon. It isn’t only found in buildings with proscenium arches – that’s the picture frame through which we look at the stage in a theater. It can be found outside of theaters – in streets and in churches, and in walks of life. In daily walks of life, people build their lives around performances, little rituals that are an important part of who they are, speaking broadly about cultures and even nations. When we think of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it’s a real performance about being a nation.

NS: And it’s fair to say that this (performance study) is what you do, right?

JR: Well, yes, I’m a professor of English, and I teach English literature. But I teach drama, so I’m very interested in literature which is up and on its feet and moving and speaking. And I’m interested in orature as well. All that means is looking at what people say – their speech patterns and their music, their spoken poetry — and valuing it the way that literature is valued.

NS: So New Orleans must have been, to use Don De Lillo’s phrase, pulsating with data.

JR: [laughs] It’s a very rich text. It’s also a rich oration.

NS: New Orleans itself is ongoing theater, it seems…

JR: It is. And to tie it in to performance studies, some of the pioneers of the field of performance studies started at Tulane and in New Orleans. Richard Schechner, who’s now at NYU in New York, began as a professor at Tulane. He’s a theater professor, but he gotten very interested in the theater that was happening outside as well as inside.

NS: So not only jazz and r&b, but performance studies as well!

JR: Yes. There are other strands to that, and other practitioners of the field of performance studies would have other narratives of how it came to be, but that’s an important one. And certainly the performance culture of New Orleans, where the calendar of daily life is organized around ritual festivities in a way that isn’t as tangible in other places. It’s certainly present in other places, but not as tangibly.

NS: It’s astounding when you get to New Orleans and look at the calendar of festivals. There is almost constantly one festival or another going on.

JR: Yes, even during Lent, which in other places is more somber. There are saints’ days, Lenten saints’ days, which are celebrated in New Orleans, and there’s a general dispensation from the rigors of Lent. It’s interesting how many saints’ days you can find when you’re ambitiously looking.

NS: When we came here in August, we went over to a friend’s house one night. After we’d had a couple of drinks, my friend said, okay, it’s time to go to the second line! And I said, huh?

JR: [laughs] Where’s the first line?

NS: I didn’t realize that there were second lines all through the year.

JR: That’s right, starting about August and rolling right through the carnival season.

NS: Could you explain for the benefit of our listeners what a second line is?

JR: Of course. There’s a tradition in the African American community of parading and of following along and participating in a parade, either being a part of it or being alongside and watching it go by, or hosting the parade as it comes through the neighborhood. And there are various explanations of how the term came to be. The one that is my favorite comes from Reconstruction days, when African Americans were first in positions of authority in the state legislature, and they were becoming familiar with parliamentary procedure. And when it would come time to second a motion, a number of them would stand up at the same time and say, “I second that!” Hence, second line, where you get participation, really enthusiastic participation, whether you’re at the head of the parade, or at the end of the parade, or standing alongside and cheering it on.

NS: It’s tied in very intimately with the funeral ritual in New Orleans. [Note: There are also societies called “social aid and pleasure clubs” – at least 40 of them – who each sponsor one annual second line parade, unconnected to funerals sometime during the year, usually on a Sunday afternoon. – NS]

JR: Yes, that’s right. Mortuary ritual is important on all levels and in all dimensions, and it’s important to think of it in terms of festivity and celebration, although that’s a bit counter-intuitive, since deaths are being marked and lives are being mourned. At the same time, there’s a spirit of celebration. The life is being celebrated – the life of the individual, the one who passed, but also the life of the community that is brought together by the fact of that passing. It’s a rite of passage. And when in New Orleans someone passes, you don’t hear a New Orleanian often say, “he or she passed away,” you’ll hear “he passed” or “she passed.” And I’ve always found that moving, that the preposition is dropped and the passing is marked – passing between stages, but not away.

NS: Like the Kongo kalunga line…

JR: Yes!

NS: …passing from the visible world to the invisible world.

JR: Yes, that’s beautifully said, and of course it pertains to a culture that is deeply steeped in the great performance traditions of West Africa.

NS: It’s also interesting to note that dancing at funerals is known in Spain. The jota aragonesa is a funeral dance.

JR: Yes, that is interesting. Of course, not all passings are mourned, globally speaking, as suburban Presbyterians mourn passing. And that’s no knock on suburban Presbyterians, it’s just that different religious and cultural traditions have different ways of marking rites of passage of all kinds – weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies as well as funerals.

NS: What happens in the second line, of course, is that the brass band plays a dirge on the way to the gravesite, and then coming back, they strike up an upbeat tune and people dance their way back.

JR: That’s right, it might be “Nearer My God To Thee” in whole notes going to the cemetery, and “Oh, He Did Ramble” or “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Dirty Dog” coming back from the burial. Or the moment of “cutting the body loose,” as New Orleanians are likely to say. Cutting the body loose.

NS: Cutting the body loose. There are records of people dancing at funerals – in fact, regulations against dancing at funerals in Cuba, dating back from the same time that Cuba had Louisiana.

JR: That’s right, and you’ve mentioned a very important historical fact, that Havana was the administrative center for Louisiana when it was a Spanish colony, and then until 1926 the ecclesiastical diocese was centered in Havana.

NS: Many Spanish institutions came to Louisiana via Cuba during the 40 years or so that Spain had charge of Louisiana.

JR: Yes, there’s a whole circuit. And I’ve always been fascinated by the performances that circulate around the Caribbean — Cuba being an important locus, but there are others as well. The affinities between carnival in Trinidad and New Orleans are quite striking.

NS: And yet there’s no real linear connection you can make. It’s not like it came from Trinidad to New Orleans as far as anyone can figure out.

JR: You’d have to have more expertise than I have to speak authoritatively to that point. But I think what you’re driving at is probably the root truth of it, that they’re two very similar cultures. Both of them – both Louisiana and Trinidad – were under Spanish, French and English domination at various times in their colonial histories, so there are affinities. On the other hand, I wouldn’t rule out commerce of all kinds around the circum-Caribbean rim, as sailors and merchant mariners moved about from point to point around the Caribbean.

NS: It seems like one of the important things about the Mardi Gras Indians tradition is that nobody’s quite sure what its origin is.

JR: Isn’t it wonderful? Yes, there are so many good stories. And it’s powerful that it can’t be pinned down and documented to any one thing.

NS: It’s part of the beauty of it, I think.

JR: I think it is. It’s part of the eloquence. But it certainly has to be said that this is an African re-invention. I don’t say an African retention. I say an African re-invention, citing the forms of West African performance culture. It certainly honors Native American forms as well.

NS: You lay out the case in your book quite persuasively for the influence of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on the Indians.

JR: Well, I do cite that, and I present the evidence. Others will differ, and that can be a very touchy point, and understandably so, with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West signifying Manifest Destiny and Anglo culture as supreme. Not everyone is enthusiastic about that narrative that puts the wild west shows in New Orleans in the 1880s as a formative moment for masking Indian. In fact, you can go back to the cabildo in the Spanish regime in the 1780s and find proscriptions against wearing feathers at carnival.

NS: When I was studying, in trying to determine something about the clave – the famous clave of Cuban music – I came to the conclusion that clave was something that grew by degrees. The sense was always there, but various things that happened over the centuries reinforced the clave as the structural key of Cuban music. And it was really locked in in the 1940s. And I think that maybe the Indian tradition might have grown up in layers like that. For example, certainly the African American groups may have been masking already, but gotten the idea of the big headdresses from seeing Buffalo Bill in the street.

JR: It’s quite possible, because there are Plains Indian icons in the beadwork of Mardi Gras Indian tradition, very distinctly so. I mean the pictures – not the way they’re sewn, but the images that are created, and that seems to be a citation. But then, Louisiana was a crossroads, and New Orleans was an entrepôt of all kinds of cultural forms from all over, and it isn’t surprising that what you have is an inexplicably complicated genealogy of performance. There’s a process that I call surrogation, or substitution, where one generation will stand up and stand in for another, and honor the preceding generation by quoting it, but also develop their own ideas and put in their own inventions. It’s called repetition with revision, and it resembles jazz in the way it’s played out.

NS: One of the most interesting things to me about the music of the Indians, which I find absolutely fascinating, is that it predates what we call the invention of jazz.

JR: Oh, certainly. The cross rhythms, if nothing else.

NS: And the call-and-response singing, and the characteristic kinds of tunes. What’s so interesting is that you can put it in the clothes of any kind of African American music and it retains its identity perfectly. You can play these songs as fifties mambo r & b –

JR: Not only can you, we do!

NS: – like Sugar Boy Crawford did. You can play them as ’70s funk. The Wild Magnolias album from the ’70s is one of the great funk albums of all time.

JR: Yes, that’s right.

NS: And the Neville Brothers came together as a group to record The Wild Tchoupitoulas. That’s what made them be a group! And now people are doing hiphop versions of the Mardi Gras Indians – Cyril Neville and Donald Harrison both, that I’ve collected – that don’t sound in the least bit contrived but sound perfectly natural.

JR: Yes, well, they’re honoring those who have gone before, without repeating exactly what they’re hearing. It’s a way of saluting the past generations.

NS: We went to see Bo Dollis Saturday night. He gave a performance at the House of Blues, with a band. And it was fascinating! It was a good ’60s-style soul show, in a lot of ways.

JR: Yes, Bo was the first Mardi Gras Indian procession I ever encountered when I first came to New Orleans. I was back of town, I was on the hunt, and sure enough, I turned the corner and there was Bo and a line of the gang, and it was quite a sight.

NS: He’s also a great singer.

JR: Indeed, indeed.

NS: Even though his voice is nothing but a croak…

JR: But what a croak!

NS: And what flavor. What’s so interesting is that by turns the music could be taken as any of the various genres. The second number he sang was a long riff on the words “rock this town” and there was nothing you could call it, really, but rock ‘n’ roll. And later there was a zydeco version of “Sex Machine” with Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr., as a guest star, [JR laughs] — a zydeco version of “Sex Machine” — with a frottoir [rub-board] solo and break dancing!

JR: [laughs] Hey, Ned, are you enjoying your time in New Orleans?

NS: I was enjoying it Saturday night. It’s fascinating to me to hear this music that pre-dates all of these other genres, what we think of as distinct genres of African-American music.

JR: Well the past isn’t past, it’s present. And the future belongs to new inventions but also to those who know where they came from. And that isn’t to deny the individual creativity of particular artists who are fabulously gifted and distinct in their gifts, but it also honors a tradition.

NS: After the show my wife said something that I had been thinking. She said: “without the Mardi Gras Indians, all the rest of this would crumble.”

JR: I think that’s a very astute observation. To me it was the heart and soul of carnival.

NS: Absolutely. And I think a lot of people don’t realize — because you know, the Indians have become known internationally in the last 30 years or so, but prior to the ’70s, hardly anyone outside of New Orleans had ever heard of them. It’s amazing to me, being here, how underground it still is.

JR: Well that’s something in the genius of the place, how New Orleans retains its integrity as a cultural system despite the tremendous pressures of tourism and a globalized popularity of New Orleans as a destination – because of course that’s what people want to come for – is this extraordinary and distinctive culture. But it’s difficult when outsiders – and well-meaning outsiders, I don’t mean to criticize those who are coming as guests to visit, see, and participate – but it’s hard when there’s that level of scrutiny. I’ve been at a couple of jazz funerals in which the ethnographers and tourists outnumber the mourners.

NS: I wonder if you could give an overview of the social structure of carnival, from the krewes down to the Mardi Gras Indians, how historically this has organized itself and what it means.

JR: Well, I can give it a shot. As you well know, it’s a very complicated, multi-layered and contradictory formation, and every different historian is going to have a different answer. But in broad terms, you have a carnival tradition which is Latinate and deeply historic, but waning at the time that the Anglo-Americans come to Louisiana. And in the 1850s, white Anglos revived the old Latin idea of Mardi Gras, but inserted themselves into the position of the chief revelers. And they did this by means of secret clubs and secret parading organizations. They were doubled, so there was a group called the Pickwick Club, and that was the building and the institution to which these gentlemen were affiliated – and they were all gentlemen, at that time and still. And then there was the krewe of Comus, which was the face of carnival when the same gentlemen took to the streets in masked parades – in the case of Comus, brilliantly costumed and provisioned by expert designers. Their costumes and floats were quite grand and during the carnival season they operated against the law of Louisiana which forbade masking. They were above the law. They practiced what you might term sovereign immunity, just as monarchs.

NS: Because of their social position.

JR: Because of their social position. And carnival itself became a means of perpetuating that position. Because in addition to the parades and the visible festival in the streets, there were private balls to which only the most socially desirable were invited. And it’s no secret that it was a way of policing racial boundaries in a society in which those boundaries had been severely tested, shall we say, in the creole past, in which blood lines were controversial and complicated. And the coming-out balls were a way of attempting philosophically, if not in absolute practice, of keeping white Anglo society white Anglo society, now and in the future.

And all the while, there is an Afrocentric carnival going on that never really waned, as far as I know, that kept its traditions outside of the law, since slaves were forbidden in colonial times and in Anglo times from assembling to have their revels, although funerals were exempted in the Slave Codes and that provided an occasion on which slaves could gather and mark the passing of their brethren and celebrate their lives.

NS: And which may account, in part, for the importance of funerals in the New Orleans tradition.

JR: Indeed. And it is often said — this eludes my powers of research and documentation, but I’ve heard it said often that one of the reasons for the festivity at a jazz funeral is that slaves believed that when they died, they would go back to Africa. And hence, a rite of passage which is highly festive and celebratory. But the carnival that most people think about when they think about New Orleans Mardi Gras, I’d say in the popular imagination, people think of floats and fancy dress balls and the like. Those are the Anglocentric krewes, centered in the various clubs and organizations. And of course, there’s a powerful history to that as well, because the krewes and the clubs did more than organize carnival. They organized such events as the coup d’etat of 1874 against the racially mixed Reconstruction regime of William Pitt Kellogg.

NS: I was going to ask you to talk about that.

JR: Yes, well, it’s an important event in understanding the status of carnival in New Orleans historically. The elite of New Orleans was restive under the Reconstruction regime, which was a mixed-race regime, and sought to overthrow it, and succeeded in doing so, although a bit indirectly. But the signal event was a military coup. It can’t be described more accurately than that, except maybe to call it an act of terrorism. The White League, which had an interlocking directorate with the carnival krewes, massed their forces and organized as military units with artillery and infantry under the command of Civil War veterans and marched on the state militia, who, alerted to this, were brought together to try to stop them from seizing a shipment of arms which had been landed down by the Mint, on the Mississippi levee. And the White League defeated the militia, killed 14 state police or state troopers of the militiamen and seized the shipment of arms. And that event really, ultimately, led to the failure of Reconstruction in Louisiana and the rise of Bourbon redemption and eventually to Jim Crow and all the other consequences that pertain thereto.

NS: Well, there’s a fine line in New Orleans, it seems to me, between a parade and a riot.

JR: [Laughs] It still seems that way sometimes, but when you think of it, the social control, the discipline is remarkable. It looks anarchic. But when you really analyze it, that so many people packed in such a small space with so much liquid refreshment available and consumed, that there aren’t more outbreaks of violence and riots is really remarkable. And of course, the New Orleans police are celebrated and rightly so, for their skill in managing large groups of people.

NS: And at the same time, the New Orleans police hate the second lines.

JR: Well, they’ve also used their powers of arrest from time to time to keep them in check.

NS: I was at a second line on January 16 that ended at the Mother-in-Law Lounge on 1500 North Claiborne, and it was ending but had run 5 minutes over time, I believe – they hold to a strict 4-hour limit. The way the police dispersed it was that a whole bunch of police cars turned their sirens on maximum and just let them blast in the people’s faces for 15 minutes. Turned it on right as the band was approaching the end of its last number. It was the triumphal finish, and it was cut off by the deafening sirens. It seemed to me like such a provocation. But the people were cool, they just took it.

JR: Yes, well that’s a different layer. And of course, that’s one of the bitter ironies of the traditions, is, here’s this world-historic form. In Japan, theatre artists are honored by being conferred with the title “Living National Treasure”. In New Orleans our living national treasures are sometimes busted for crossing the street in the middle of the block.

I was thinking, of course, of the more discreet management of the uptown parades and the Canal Street parades on carnival day.

NS: Which are really very formal processions.

JR: That’s right, and Comus and the other krewes, Momus and Proteus and Rex, prided themselves on the way in which their Mardi Gras festivities were dignified and representative of their social status and the kind of management you just referred to in that anecdote is a little bit different and less discreet, more overt, I’m sorry to say.

NS: Could you talk for a moment about what seems to a casual observer to be the main point of all these parades, which is the throwing and receiving of beads and other tchotchkes?

JR: Well, it’s an artificial economy that reigns in Mardi Gras season. And it’s a symbolic economy, in which you can see the operation of social classes and groups much more starkly – well, I won’t say more starkly, you see it starkly enough just riding through the city – but much more performatively, much more vividly, much more colorfully than you do day to day. And there’s a circuit of what I would call sacrificial expenditure, where you give away, and the power of the economy is both consuming and giving. And if you watch the uptown parades, the floats come along and they spew beads in every direction. For weeks thereafter, they’re hanging in the trees along St. Charles and the other parade routes, and the rapturous crowds plead “Throw me something, Mister!” to the floats and if their performance is good enough, they’re rewarded with this noblesse oblige, this shower from above of beads. But then, the observer will also note that the crowds who are begging for beads will flip coins to the flambeaux, the largely African American torchbearers, who illuminate the night parades with the torches that they wear on their backs, and cast a beautiful flickering light over the crowd and over the floats and over the riders. It’s part of the magic of carnival, but it’s also extremely revealing that the circuit of sacrificial expenditure flows from the top down. You could call it the trickle-down effect of Mardi Gras economy.

NS: It’s quite a powerful performance. I can testify having gone to my first Mardi Gras parade this year, how readily one gets pulled into begging for beads.

JR: Yes. Isn’t it remarkable? People that you would never think would surrender themselves to that indignity are sometimes the most vociferous of bead-seekers.

NS: Now, into this structure in 1909 came Zulu.

JR: Yes. Zulu is a case apart.

NS: First of all, what is Zulu?

JR: Well, that’s right — what is Zulu? Where to begin? It was originally called the Tramps. The story is that some inventive African Americans saw a minstrel show in which they heard a number, “There Never Was a King Like This”. It was a parody of African forms of religion and culture. And the Tramps took that over in an ironic way. There’s an old slave saying, “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick.” You can take over the forms of people who are mocking you and turn it around, and turn it back at those who are doing the mocking by imitating those who are mocking you and I think that is part of the energy of Zulu, not all of it. It has an important official dimension now in carnival, and it’s a very significant krewe, lined up with Rex and all the rest that still parade. But there’s also an element of deep humor in the symbolism of Zulu…

NS: Which is what?

JR: Which is African forms that are stereotyped in white representations of Africa, like the governor and the province chieftain, parodies of Africa, reinventing Africa from a point of view that is not intended as a compliment by those who originated the imitation.

NS: The costumes that they wear…

JR: Yes…

NS: You have black men dressed in blackface…

JR: That’s right.

NS: With grass skirts throwing coconuts…

JR: Throwing coconuts, which are of course the most prized throw of all of carnival. If you can score a coconut, that is high prestige – and ought to be, they’re handmade, and some of them are very beautiful indeed. But of course there’s an irony to that gesture. In the 1950s one of the prize throws of Zulu was hair straightener. There are wheels within wheels, and worlds within worlds.

NS: And the Zulu is today the only parade that goes into the hood.

JR: Yes. Well, of course if you discount Mardi Gras Indians parades.

NS: Do you consider those parades?

JR: Well, they’re processions. You’re quite right, they’re not quite the same thing as the more formalized processions…

NS: Because before I came to New Orleans, I had this idea that I would see a Mardi Gras Indians parade. But instead, it’s more like marauding. They don’t publicize their schedule. You have to –

JR: That’s right.

NS: That’s what the Spy Boy is about.

JR: That’s what the Spy Boy is about, that’s right. But of course, it does come along a street in, not a regular column, but a procession. The patient observer is rewarded with a structure that is very complicated and just as detailed in its formal way as the uptown parades, just not quite the same uptight regimentation.

NS: I saw an encounter between two chiefs this year, and it was the most beautiful thing.

JR: It is. Well, I hope that your listeners can have the experience, if they hadn’t, of this sight, because it’s one of the great North American achievements in performance. It’s like the great achievement of jazz or symphonic music, or our great stars and artists of the history of American theatre. Tootie Montana is a great American artist. As I said, a living national treasure. Which is what he would be if he were in Japan.

NS: Could you tell us a bit about what happened with – nowadays, Comus doesn’t parade, Momus doesn’t parade, Proteus has gone back to parading. On Mardi Gras day, you have two parades. One is Zulu, followed by Rex…

JR: Yes.

NS: But Comus and Momus are no longer anywhere to be seen.

JR: Yes, well, after the city passed an ordinance in December of 1991 integrating the krewes – that is, insisting that any organization that used the public streets would have to have open accommodations for everyone without regard to race – after that ordinance was passed, the old-line krewes, Comus and Momus, and at the time, Proteus, ceased parading. They didn’t parade in 1992. At least not officially. They did perform guerrilla parades in the Quarter and roundabout, and in that, they resembled ironically, Mardi Gras Indian processions in that individual maskers processed with their particular costumes, some of them highly satirical of the New Orleans aldermen and women who passed the ordinance.

NS: When you parade in New Orleans, you have to have a permit, but the Mardi Gras Indians don’t do that.

JR: Well, they don’t because they evade it. The krewes don’t have to have a permit either, but that’s by special exemption under Louisiana law for the days leading up to, in the pre-Lenten festivities. Or at least when I was there, it was black-letter law in Louisiana statute. And they were also exempted from the prohibition against mask-wearing, which was still on the books when I was there. It’s hard to believe that there’s a Louisiana state law against mask-wearing, but there is, or there was.

NS: There’s another thing that goes on Mardi Gras day that is quite popular, which is what we might call the sort of, the bohemian carnival in the Frenchman street area.

JR: There’s a carnival for almost every group of participants in New Orleans, and the Queen for a Day festivities are brilliant in their genre, and gay Mardi Gras is a great topic. I think less has been said about it, less has been written, but more should be said and written, because it’s brilliant in its own way. One of my favorites in the more recent carnival tradition is the krewe of Barkus, in which New Orleans dog owners have a parade for their pets.

NS: And there’s a cats’ one now, too.

JR: There is?

NS: It’s called Endymeow.

JR: [Laughs] Well, thanks for updating me on that one, I’ve gotta get back, I really do.

NS: You should come down for Jazzfest.

JR: I really should, I’ve been a number of times for Jazzfest, but I haven’t been back to carnival since I left New Orleans, and I ought to.

NS: What are you working on now?

JR: My current project is called “It.” And it’s about the quality possessed by abnormally interesting people – the arresting, charismatic power of celebrities.

NS: I noticed your definitions of “celebrity” and “star” in your article on the emergence of the American actor [in The Cambridge History of the American Theater].

JR: Yes, well, it’s an important thing to a theater historian to think about how it is that some careers proceed day to day and other careers seem to take off, and what that magical property is that’s possessed by the superstars.

NS: Well thank you, Joseph Roach.

JR: Thank you, Ned, so much.