Photography by Harold Daniels
Congo Square is quiet. A lone percussionist taps out ancient tribal rhythms on a two-headed hand drum; in the distance, an air compressor used in road construction provides whooshes of accompaniment. Park benches are surrounded by azaleas, magnolia trees, and massive live oaks that stretch to provide relief from the midday sun. It’s an oasis of relative solitude across the street from the French Quarter.
Congo Square may be quiet now, but the Tremé neighborhood in which it is located pulses with energy, fed by a swelling resurgence of interest in traditional New Orleans culture. Historically known as Faubourg Tremé (Faubourg is an ancient French term for “suburb”) and named after real estate developer Claude Tremé, the tiny district (.69 square mile) became the city’s first subdivision in the early nineteenth century and is considered the oldest African American neighborhood in the nation.
Free people of color and slaves who obtained their freedom were able to acquire and own property in Tremé decades before the Civil War, and Congo Square was the meeting ground where they celebrated and preserved their cultural heritage. When these traditions blended with those of European colonialists, they gave birth to a distinctly American culture that defines the spirit of New Orleans.
This history lives on in a number of Tremé landmarks. First, there’s St. Augustine Catholic Church, the cornerstone of the nation’s oldest African American Catholic parish. Then there’s Backstreet Cultural Museum, home to a stunning collection of jazz funeral memorabilia and Mardi Gras Indian garb worn by black paraders to honor the Native Americans who once helped slaves escape to freedom. It’s also on display every Wednesday night at the Candlelight Lounge, where the Tremé Brass Band preserves the percussionist tradition that began in New Orleans at the turn of the last century and played a major role in the development of jazz.
We visited Tremé this year, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, to meet with three of the area’s leading cultural ambassadors: Creole cuisine legend Leah Chase, jazz icon Donald Harrison Jr., and Mardi Gras Indian advocate Dow Edwards. Collectively, they introduced us to a historical neighborhood where the seeds of New Orleans’s culture were sown more than 200 years ago—and where those roots held fast through the storm, anchoring the city during a decade of rebuilding.
Sitting Down at the Table
A block west of Tremé’s center, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant is a New Orleans landmark, a crucial connection to the city’s past that was almost wiped away by the 2005 storm. Entering the front door, you’ll see a cartoon painting of regal owner Leah Chase and Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess, who was introduced in the 2009 animated film The Princess & the Frog. Tiana’s character, a hardworking chef with big dreams, was inspired by the life of the ninety-two-year-old cook and restaurateur. Next to the hostess stand where Chase’s daughter Stella greets guests, there are framed letters of commendation from President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict, as well as awards from the National Restaurant Association and the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The deep red walls of the main dining room are lined with what many consider to be the city’s finest collection of black art, depicting slices of life from ancient tribal West Africa all the way to modern-day Louisiana. And at the center of it all is a buffet table loaded with the food that made Chase famous—crispy fried chicken, steaming hot gumbo, red beans and rice, and the best peach cobbler you’ve ever tasted.
Chase, who at age fourteen moved to the area from nearby Madisonville, developed a passion for Creole cooking inspired by her grandparents. In 1940, she became one of the first blacks hired as a waitress in the French Quarter. When she married popular jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II in 1945, the strong-willed twenty-two-year-old knew she wanted to work at his parents’ casual restaurant—and make changes.
“When I got here, I said, ‘We’ve got to do better than fried chicken, fried fish, and fried oysters!” she recalls. “We have to do what [upscale white restaurants] do!’ The first thing I put on the menu was Lobster Thermidor, and the people threw a fit. They told my mother-in-law I was going to ruin her business. I had to back up and give them what they liked.”
Instead of trying to mimic the white restaurants of the French Quarter, Chase poured herself into creating a menu steeped in Creole tradition, whose roots could be traced back to West Africa. Alongside soul food hotspot Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Dooky Chase’s put Tremé on the culinary map, influencing future icons like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse and restaurants such as Commander’s Palace and NOLA.
During the sixties, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. broke bread and discussed strategy with local freedom fighters such as Reverend A.L. Davis and Oretha Castle Haley in the upstairs meeting room. The restaurant emerged as a de facto headquarters for the civil rights movement in Louisiana. “They planned all their strategy right here over a bowl of gumbo,” she says. “I tell young people today, sometimes you just need to sit down and talk. You can change the world over a bowl of gumbo.”
“I tell young people today, sometimes you just need to sit down and talk. You can change the world over a bowl of gumbo.”
In the late sixties, Chase became interested in art thanks to the influence of her friend Celestine Cook, the first black to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 1977, Cook nominated Chase for a board seat alongside her, and Chase won. Soon, she began rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and painter Jacob Lawrence and came to view art collecting as an investment in her community.
By the late twentieth century, Chase had not only established herself as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” but also as one of Tremé’s preeminent civic and cultural leaders. But she nearly lost everything when Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans. “It was terrible: 80 percent of this city was underwater. In the restaurant, we had five feet of water in some places. I was in Birmingham, and one of my grandsons, a fireman, called to tell me that Dooky Chase’s was destroyed, but the art was still intact.”
The community rallied to save the beloved Tremé landmark. Firemen and policemen helped move her art collection to Baton Rouge. Popeyes and Starbucks donated tens of thousands of dollars to the restaurant’s cleanup effort, and the culinary community held a benefit dinner that raised an additional $40,000. Less than two years after Katrina, Dooky Chase’s reopened.
Chase admits that Tremé looks different now. Many of the neighborhood’s historical Creole cottages and double shotgun houses have been beautifully restored. The housing projects across the street from Dooky Chase’s are gone, replaced by more modern, energy-efficient retail shops. Some critics complain these are signs of gentrification, but Chase sees them as signs of hope for the future. She points to a sankofa (a West African symbol represented by a bird with its head turned backwards) stenciled on the side of the neighborhood’s brand-new John Dibert Community School. “The bird is looking back to see how he can go forward. That’s what we have to do here in New Orleans,” she says. “People are coming together, helping one another, and understanding one another more than ever before. . . . And it all starts with sitting down at the table.”
From Congo Square to Everywhere
There’s a look of sheer bliss on Donald Harrison Jr.’s face as he lays down rhythms on a snare drum and cowbell in front of a visiting school group. He’s accompanying the infectious “Un Na Nay” chants of two members of the Wild Magnolias tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. We’re at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, just a few blocks from Congo Square, to discuss how the African culture in Tremé gave birth to jazz. But right now Harrison—world-renowned jazz saxophonist, Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, and creative consultant on the HBO series Treme—is deep in the pocket of a groove that won’t quit.
The roots of jazz date back to the late 1800s in Tremé, when African rhythms merged with the city’s French operas, Scotch-Irish ballads, andmilitary brass band traditions. Blacks—refused coverage by insurance companies—formed “Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs,” whose benefits included an annual parade and a brass band for funerals. These funerals incorporated both the neighborhood’s emerging musical style and traditional dances exaggerated into a syncopated strut. Early icons like Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds, and Louis Armstrong emphasized the rollicking swing of the beat, and the New Orleans “Second Line” sound was born.
That legacy is very much alive in New Orleans today. You can hear it at Tremé nightspots the Candlelight Lounge and the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar, as well as Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the French Quarter and Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro in neighboring Faubourg Marigny. You can see it in thirty-two-acre Louis Armstrong Park (home to Congo Square and the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts), where Elizabeth Catlett’s statues pay tribute to Armstrong, saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and cornetist Buddy Bolden. And you can feel it along Marigny’s Frenchmen Street and throughout the French Quarter, where the Young Fellaz Brass Band and other next-generation artists play their music and busk for tips.
“Those rhythms influenced jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, and now, hip-hop. You can hear it in Elton John, playing New Orleans–style piano. You can hear it in the rhythms of the Rolling Stones and James Brown. That sound was taken all around the world.”
According to Harrison, the impact of New Orleans music—particularly the African drumming in Congo Square—extends far beyond jazz. “Those rhythms influenced jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, and now, hip-hop. You can hear it in Elton John, playing New Orleans–style piano. You can hear it in the rhythms of the Rolling Stones and James Brown. That sound was taken all around the world.”
Kill ’em Dead with Needle and Thread
There’s another piece to the puzzle of jazz: the Mardi Gras Indians. “Jazz’s syncopation and call-and-response came out of the tribal influence,” Harrison says. He and his sister, Cherice Harrison-Nelson (also a consultant on HBO’s Treme), were raised in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition by their late father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Revered as a peacemaker, he dedicated his life to preserving this unique cultural heritage.
Mardi Gras Indian history dates back to 1725, when the first African slaves escaped into the bayou with help from the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other Native American tribes. The escaped slaves were taught to live off the land in “Maroon Camps.” Records suggest that Creoles of color began dressing as Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras as early as 1746.
In the 1800s, blacks were forbidden to march or mask in parades, and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition went underground, dividing geographically into loosely organized gangs. They’d gather secretly to sing and chant in the ancient tribal tradition, fashioning suits festooned with fish scales and bottle caps to pay tribute to the Indians who had helped them obtain their freedom. On Mardi Gras day, when police were busy protecting the French Quarter, they took to the streets of Tremé to strut their stuff.
Sometimes, Indian gangs would cross paths and real fights would break out. In the mid-twentieth century, there was an effort to reduce the violence and enhance the Mardi Gras Indians’ mainstream appeal. Big Chiefs Donald Harrison Sr. (of the Guardians of the Flame), Tootie Montana (Yellow Pocahontas), and Bo Dollis (Wild Magnolias) decided the chief’s job was to protect his tribe and make sure each Indian got home safe. They adopted the motto, “Kill ’em dead with needle and thread,” insisting their tribes focus on culture—in particular, the creation of spectacular regalia—rather than confrontation.
In honor of her father, Harrison-Nelson co-founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, and in 2015 the family built the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum and Guardians Institute, a cultural arts center dedicated to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The small museum showcases a collection of Harrison’s intricate beadwork and several Harrison family suits. The orange modernist building, constructed by Tulane University’s School of Architecture as part of a community outreach program, is almost as attention-getting as the handiwork displayed inside.
You the Prettiest
While the Harrisons were surrounded by Mardi Gras Indian culture all their lives, Dow Edwards found himself on the outside looking in. He grew up in Uptown and became infatuated with the Indians’ immaculately crafted suits and infectious chants after seeing them during Mardi Gras as a boy. But he didn’t know anyone in their community, and after he left for college in Oklahoma, he doubted he ever would.
It took an act of nature to prove Edwards wrong. After Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, the former New England Patriots receiver, now partner at a respected New Orleans law firm, was determined to prevent the Mardi Gras Indian tradition from washing away.
“After the hurricane hit, it looked like there might be a run on some of the cultural icons of New Orleans,” he says. “Mardi Gras Indians are neighborhood-associated, but Katrina dispersed everybody. Being a lawyer and having served on several boards, I thought I could lend a voice to the Indians. The first meeting I went to, Big Chief Tyrone Casby’s wife had somebody draw my first suit patch on cardboard, and he showed me how to sew beads on. I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m ever gonna finish this suit!’”
But he did. And in 2010, he put it on and joined hundreds of fellow Indians as they strutted around Tremé, sang, and competed to be “the prettiest.” “There’s a sense of spirituality and community pride that comes from this long process,” he says.
Today, Edwards spends an average of five hours a day in his workshop, sewing remarkably intricate suits that have earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. Using thousands of dollars’ worth of beads, gems, and decorative feathers, he creates complex tapestries that tell stories from African American and Native American history. He wears each suit just three times, parading on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night (March 19), and the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, known as “Super Sunday.”
Edwards says Super Sunday has grown considerably in the seven years he’s been “masking Indian.” Walking down Lasalle Street toward A.L. Davis Park before the parade with his spectacular green suit on display, he’s greeted like a rock star. People stop and stare, children point and smile, and friends rush over to pound his fist.
An hour later, the Central City streets along the three-mile Super Sunday parade route are filled with thousands of people. The scents of grilled meats, gumbo, boiled crawfish, and fresh fried beignets fill the air. Brass bands playing second-line jazz strut and shimmy along to an insistent beat that proves impossible to resist. Friends, families, and photographers crowd around marching Mardi Gras Indians such as Edwards, who sing chants like “Shallow Water” and “Indian Red” and pose proudly as people shout, “You the prettiest!”
It’s a celebration of the distinctive culture whose seeds were planted in Tremé centuries ago, and a testament to the strength and resilience of a city whose influence continues to reverberate around the world.