'It’s in the genes': New Orleans culture marches on despite the pandemic

In a city forged by challenges, musicians, chefs, and performers have found new ways to persevere.

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“Big Sam” Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation performs from the driveway of his home on Memorial Day for an online audience. Many musicians have taken to the internet to share their work since the coronavirus shut down New Orleans in March.

Sundays are for sewing. That much, at least, has not changed for Bo Dollis Jr.

During Memorial Day weekend, after New Orleans officials relaxed social distancing rules, the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians got his tribe together for the first time since everything came unglued. About 15 people came, and they sat together on folding chairs, laughing, joking, and sewing. Each had an open toolbox stuffed with small plastic bags of beads at their feet and a stretched canvas across their laps. They shared advice and suggestions as easily as they passed around needles threaded with waxed dental floss, with which they attached beads and rhinestones to the canvas in the shape of bears, horses, and native people.

For Dollis, the sewing session marked a return to normalcy and an opportunity to continue sharing this New Orleans tradition he learned from his father. Since he was eight, the 39-year-old has masked as a Mardi Gras Indian, part of a tradition amongst Black New Orleanians that some say honors local natives who once housed escaped slaves. It culminates each spring when tribes across the city unveil their year’s work: A hand-beaded masterpiece of color and feathers—a new suit— that shines in the southern sunlight as the tribes sing, dance, and show off how pretty they are. (Is Alabama home to America’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration?)

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Black Masking Indians from several tribes and generations join a protest organized by the Black Hawk Hunters, a youth tribe, against the murders of Black people by the police.

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Terrance Williams, Big Chief of the Black Hawk Hunters, co-organized a protest against police brutality and racial inequality in June. The 16-year-old was joined by a host of children, adults, and Black Masking Indians from other tribes.

Traditionally, Mardi Gras Indians have but a few days to wear their suits, including Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Day in March. The coronavirus, however, interrupted this tradition. New Orleans officials shut down public events and began enforcing social distancing just days before St. Joseph’s.

Instead of strutting the streets with his tribe, Dollis sat at home that night and cried. “That was a heartbreaker,” he said. His hair salon and barbershop closed, and Dollis huddled at home with his family hoping they wouldn’t be touched by the virus.

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Bo Dollis Jr., Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, shows an early stage of a patch that will be intricately beaded for a suit. He has masked as a Mardi Gras Indian since he was eight years old.

For many of New Orleans’ chefs, musicians, dancers, Mardi Gras Indians, singers, and street performers, the coronavirus has meant a loss of income, opportunity, and stability. For some, it’s brought sickness and grief. And for all, it has challenged how they identify and express themselves. But this city has been forged by challenge for hundreds of years. Over its history, one thing has proven true: New Orleans cannot be infected, flooded, burned, or mismanaged into submission.

“A disaster is a disaster. Hard times are hard times,” said Al Jackson, the founder of the Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum. “We know every year we should expect a hurricane, so we’re psychologically prepared to handle it. … Every year, we make a new suit. It’s in the music. It’s in the genes.”

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Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, at the practice of Monogram Hunters, another group of Mardi Gras Indians. Each spring, tribes across the city sing, dance, and unveil their new suits.

A melody of perseverance

The coronavirus appeared in New Orleans with a fury. The first case was confirmed on March 9, just 13 days after Mardi Gras. The annual celebration brings tourists from around the world and likely served as an early incubator for community spread. An early hotspot for the virus in the United States, the city has so far tallied nearly 7,500 cases and more than 525 deaths. A constellation of social realities make many of the city’s residents more likely to get sick and more likely to die in the pandemic: Nearly a quarter of people live in poverty, according to The Data Center, a local statistics firm, which also reports that the percentage of New Orleanians diagnosed with conditions that increase the likelihood of severe COVID-19 outcomes—high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, COPD, kidney disease, or cancer—outpaces New York, the virus’s epicenter in the U.S.

In Louisiana, more than half of the 2,950 people who have died from COVID-19 are Black, despite comprising less than a third of the total population. In Orleans Parish, Black people make up 60 percent of the population but more than 75 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to state data. (Here's why the virus disproportionately affects African Americans.)

These inequities are magnified in a cross-section of New Orleans entertainers. The New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which offers medical treatment regardless of ability to pay, counts about 2,600 patients in its care. Of those, at least 29 percent are African-American and have been diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions.

The average wage for performing artists in New Orleans is less than $30,000 per year, according to The Data Center, which is why, for many, the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse. The coronavirus appeared at the start of the city’s annual festival circuit and just before graduations. Local performers and restaurants rely on both for regular pay before the summer heat drives away most tourists.

The season’s events are typically so dependable, musicians often time album releases around them. Sweet Crude, an indie-pop band that weaves English and Cajun-French lyrics into its music, waited months to release its latest album, “Official//Artificiel,” during the festival season. But now, instead of touring and making festival appearances, Sweet Crude hosted a live-streamed album release party and bi-weekly live-stream performances.

“We were sacrificing so much for the year before so we could ramp up for this thing that everyone said was going to turn the tables, so it’s sad. But this is life, and you have to just move on,” said Sweet Crude’s frontwoman Alexis Marceaux. “We’re just trying to be innovative, trying to find ways to still exist.”

Not all musicians have that option: 20 percent of New Orleans households have no internet access, according to The Data Center. But those who can are connecting with these new ways to perform.

“I don’t think there’s nothing that would stop this city in making music and doing what we do,” said Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, whose band closes out the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival every year. “The art, the Mardi Gras Indians, the second-lines [brass-band led parades], the food, the music—that’s just a part of what we do. We have to have it. It’s like eating every day.”

In recent weeks, New Orleans social media has lit up with porch performances by trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and the traditional jazz band the New Orleans Po’ Boys. Tim Laughlin has played his clarinet from a French Quarter balcony. Shamarr Allen and Dee-1 released new coronavirus-themed tracks. Together, it is a melody of perseverance. (Blame evolution for our compulsion to socialize despite the risk of COVID-19.)

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Nearly every Wednesday since April, people have gathered in McDonogh Memorial Park to watch Rick Trolsen and his band perform at his home across the street from the park.

“A word bandied about when people talk about New Orleans is ‘resilience,’” said Frank Brigtsen, a chef who has led his eponymous restaurant in the city’s Black Pearl neighborhood for nearly 35 years. “I don’t want to be called resilient. I’m sick of being called resilient. I don’t want to be in that situation. But the fact is, we are.”

Though takeout and some in-house dining are allowed, Brigtsen does not plan to reopen Brigtsen’s Restaurant until later this summer. For now, he’s taking the time to self-publish his seasonal cookbooks and making spice blends sold on the restaurant’s website. The projects not only keep him busy; they’re a lifeline for his mind, too.

“What we learned in Katrina is that it’s not just the physical damage or destruction. There’s a spiritual and human side to it,” Brigtsen said. “Here we are, over two months into our shutdown, and we feel positive about ourselves. We feel positive that we are doing something constructive.”

Stella Chase Reese’s family has run Dooky Chase’s Restaurant for 79 years. The restaurant has long offered bowls of lush gumbo z’herbes on Holy Thursday, a local pre-Easter tradition that typically has New Orleanians making reservations a year out. This year would already have been a challenge because of the takeout-only mandate, but it was made ever harder when Reese’s husband of 47 years, Wayne Reese, died just days earlier after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Still, Stella Reese was at Dooky Chase’s on Holy Thursday, waving at customers as they drove through the restaurant’s receiving line.

“We are going to survive. We just have to continue to recreate ourselves and see what we can do to not only feed the community but assist in any way we possibly can to bring our city back,” Reese said. “This is our history, and none of us are going to let it go easily.” (These Southern chefs are giving back to their communities during the pandemic.)

Like other families mourning deaths of family and friends during the pandemic in New Orleans, Reese and her family were limited to a crowd of 10 at a ceremony honoring her husband’s memory. But she will find some way in the future to hold another memorial.

“We will certainly have some sort of celebration,” she said, “because his life was one to celebrate.”

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Leah Chase, the iconic chef of Dooky Chase’s, died in June 2019 at the age of 96. The city said goodbye in style: Hundreds showed up to her jazz funeral procession from the church to her restaurant before she was laid to rest.

A unique way to say goodbye

In New Orleans, there is a tradition known as a jazz funeral. Following a formal service, a brass band plays a somber accompaniment as pallbearers shuffle in time toward a loved one’s final resting place. It is the sound of closure, the sound of grief.

Then there is a brief silence, a pause when someone is laid to rest, known as “cutting the body loose."

What is in that moment? A million heartbreaks, a lifetime of memories, the ache and comfort that something is over. But also, transition.

Finally, there’s a horn blast, a whistle, or a snare drum in a siren call of joy and release. A family of mourners transforms into a family of celebrants, eager to honor what they have lost with smiles and dancing and love.

The most important thing about that moment is, no matter how long the pause, in New Orleans, the celebration always comes.

L. Kasimu Harris is a New Orleans-based writer, photographer, and visual artist whose practice is dedicated to telling stories of underrepresented communities in New Orleans and beyond.
Chelsea Brasted is a New Orleans-born freelance journalist. She spent nearly seven years at The Times-Picayune, most recently as metro columnist.