Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Super Sunday.

Regular readers of this thing are probably bored stiff with my Mardi Gras Indian fetish. If you're reading here for the first time and wondering what the hell I'm talking about, here's a cheap-and-cheerful history of the tradition.

The two big days in the Indian Calendar are Fat Tuesday and Super Sunday. Super Sunday is generally the first Sunday after St. Joseph's Day (the two things seem to be connected in some way, but I've never been able to figure it out. Like so many things in the Indian tradition, you get a different story from every guy you ask). Last year, Super Sunday didn't happen at all. There just weren't enough gang members back in town. This year, because St. Joseph's Day fell on a Sunday, I guess they decided to hold Super Sunday the same day. Maybe. Like I said, different stories. A big part of Being Indian is Being Inscrutable.

The scoop was that the parade would kick off at one thirty p.m. at the corner of Lasalle and Washington, right by the Magnolia Projects and Shakespeare Park, and head on up to the little pocket park at Washington and South Derbigny. Mindful of the fact that things in New Orleans rarely start on time, Darlene and I got there at two and hit it just right, the Stooges Brass Band was just kicking things off.

Every experience I have of these things is exactly like the first for me. The sense of wonder never gets old. I have enormous respect for these people, who, against all odds, continue to pass these traditions down through the centuries to their children, many of whom were in evidence. Jermaine "Jigga" Cooper, gang flag for the 7th Ward tribe Trouble Nation, had sewn a pair of small suits for his son, flag boy Jaheim Cooper, 3, and nephew, 1-year-old spy boy De-Von Cooper.

Jermain Cooper studied his needlework under legendary chief the late Allison "Tootie" Montana, as did many contemporary chiefs like Markieth Tero of Trouble Nation and former Yellow Pocahontas flag boy Victor Harris of the Fi YiYi, who wore a golden crown in honor of Montana. The Mardi Gras Indian Council, which hosted the event, named two "special honorees" for this year: Montana's widow, Joyce Montana, and longtime Wild Magnolia's Chief Emile "Bo" Dollis.

My wife Darlene loves the Indians, and likes to take pictures of their events. I'll post some when they get back from the drugstore (yes, we're that old-school). She gets right in there in the thick of it and sometimes all I can see is feathers and the top of her blonde head, and hear the sounds of the Indians chants ("I'm the BIG CHIEF! I'm the ONE THEY TAAALK ABOUT!") and the impromptu percussion ensembles (plastic buckets, beer bottles, tambourines hit like pistol shots) that follow them, chanting, as well as the more formal brass bands (The Stooges, and our friends from the 'hood, the Hot 8) who lead and closed the procession.

True to their outlaw ethos, the Indians didn't even pretend to follow their "parade route." There were cops on horseback, so they must have bought a permit (highly unusual for them) but instead of heading up Washington towards South Derbigny, they went downtown along Lasalle for about a half a mile, finally turning up Martin Luther King Drive right by Leidenheimer's bakery ("good to the last crumb"). And, since we were starting to get seriously baked in the sun by then, that's where we left them, heading towards South Claiborne in a blaze of color and a blast of brass and funky percussion.

I really don't know why this stuff moves me so. As a white man, I know I can't be part of it (although there are a couple of very rare instances of white men masking Indian). It's not for me, and I can only observe. I suspect a part of the attraction is the intergenerational interaction between men and boys, fathers and sons, that is so much a part of Mardi Gras Indian Culture, and so much not a part of contemporary caucasian male culture. There are certainly women involved in Indian traditions, but it's a man's thing, at the heart of it. The men do all the sewing, for instance, even if the suits are worn by women and children. It's said that you can tell a 'real,' 'old time' Indian by evidence of his sewing. The intricate beadwork on the costumes contains thousands and thousands of individual stitches, and the men sustain a lot of needle damage to their fingers by Mardi Gras Day. And you must make a new suit, every year.

Most white, middle-class men don't involve their sons in the activities that speak to their hearts. My own father was different. He spent a lot of time with me, and instilled in me his love of reading and literature. It was his greatest gift to me. I guess, in a weird way, I see a reflection of this in the Mardi Gras Indians out there with their children, in no small part because this year Super Sunday also marks the second anniversary of my father's death.

Comments on "Super Sunday."


Blogger Undercover Black Man said ... (11:21 AM) : 

John, one of the classic funk singles from my childhood days was "Smoke My Peace Pipe" by the Wild Magnolias. I'm sure you're hip to it. ("I'm a Big Chief, I do the best for my tribe...")

But not until deep into adulthood did I learn it was all about the "Mardi Gras Indian" culture. My buddy David Simon (creator of "The Wire") is in love with N.O., and a student of the music and the culture. He broke it down for me.


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