Friday, 29 June 2012


22/6/12, New Orleans

Just north of the French Quarter in the largely-black and rather scruffy Treme, and just round the corner from St Augustine's Roman Catholic church, which at its foundation in 1842 by a congregation of whites and free men and women of color also, uniquely, set aside some pews for slaves, and which today has a memorial to slavery in the churchyard made of an anchor-like cross forged from giant chain links and festooned with shackles.

It's a museum devoted to New Orleans black street culture: Mardi Gras Indians with their immensely elaborate and startlingly bright-coloured costumes; Second Line parades; jazz funerals; the history of New Orleans brass bands; the social clubs which run the parades.  The Indian costumes are the most striking, with masks and body drapes covered in sequins and motifs, with elements of Aztec and Inca art and Liberian and Sierra Leonean masked devils and huge, garishly-dyed ostrich feathers.  They must be unbelievably hot to wear, as well as being outrageous, absurd, flamboyant and unrestrained.

The collection's housed in a former funeral parlour and was put together by a man called Sylvester Francis, a photographer, who's been collecting this stuff since the 1990s.  His wife showed us round.  Divided by a common language, I found much of what she said hard to follow but she said it enthusiastically.  If I understood her correctly, the collection survived Katrina because it was in store at the time, but the museum was flooded and so was the Sylvester's home -- they moved into the museum building for a time.

I also get the impression all these things were dying out in the 50s and 60s with the rise of television, and that they've been deliberately resurrected.

The place is run in the kind of laidback fashion one might expect.  It's supposed to open at 10; we arrived at 10.30; a man who came round with some provisions told us to come back in half an hour.

A couple of days later K took us to a Second Line parade (which took some finding in a taxi, driving round the neighbourhood following the route on a photocopied sheet we'd been given at the Museum).  Very noisy, very, very hot, the Uptown Swingers swaggering along in a lime green suits with sashes and hats and what not, behind a truck with a sound system and a line of convertibles with ladies ("queens") of all ages sitting up in the back, and a small and raucous brass band.  When we arrived they were taking a break at Joe's House of Blues, the followers milling around in the street outside, with stalls selling cold drinks and barbecued food and a man with a megaphone selling rum off the back of a pick-up truck.  After a time they set off three or four more blocks before taking another break.  It was chaotic though not undisciplined and everyone seemed to know everyone else, though many of the participants looked a bit bored, I thought.

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