Music » Rhythm Section: by Alison Fensterstock

Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra

Chief David Montana debuts a new suit on Fat Tuesday

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3 p.m. Tue., Feb. 24

Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Ave., 947-9344



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Mardi Gras Indians are one of New Orleans' unique paradoxes. Photos of them are ubiquitous, especially in tourist publications, making their colorful, elaborately beaded suits a signature image representing the city. The groundbreaking funk album The Wild Magnolias, produced by Willie Tee with the titular tribe in 1974, is a classic. It introduced Indian chants and percussion to the world. Some tribes participate in advertised, open-to the-public Indian practices — a post-Katrina innovation — at clubs like Tipitina's. Yet the intricacies of real Indian culture and custom remain shrouded, and maybe even a little bit scary; a reminder tribes weren't created as the basis for performing bands like Bo Dollis' beloved Wild Magnolias, but as highly insular groups that were at times as violent as street gangs. Indians are some of the city's best-known public faces, and yet their real culture remains largely private. Some of their plans for this Mardi Gras morning, however, are out in the open. They're playing a concert with roughly a dozen assorted local musicians at the Hi-Ho Lounge.

  On Mardi Gras Day, Indian tribes "run" in their neighborhoods. For many fans, tracking them down in Uptown or Treme is a beloved tradition. This year, at least a few will be easier to find, thanks to a neighborly collaboration between a local promoter and one of the city's most respected Indian dynasties. John "Jazz Fest Johnny" Driver, a character on the local music scene, lives across the street from David Montana, second chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe and nephew of the late "Chief of Chiefs," Allison "Tootie" Montana. For some years, he's even helped sew David Montana's suit — a process that involves as many as 30 to 40 other friends and family members.

  "I wanted something a little different for Mardi Gras Day than that Frenchmen scene," Driver says. "After St. Ann, after Zulu, all the neighborhood stuff, to end the day with a piece of culture."

  The event begins on Fat Tuesday at 10 a.m. on Driver and Montana's Mid-City block, at DeSoto and North Broad streets, with the "calling out" of Montana and his Big Queen, accompanied by performances from Papa Mali and Seguenon Kone. The second chief will lead a procession to Tootie Montana's former Seventh Ward home, where his son, Big Chief Darryl Montana, and other members of the tribe will join. The Yellow Pocahontas will run the neighborhood until 3 p.m., when the tribe will reach the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue for the concert.

  "It's going to be Mardi Gras Indians with big strings," Driver says. "Two cellists, three guitar players, a violin and a 12- or 13-piece orchestra." Musicians scheduled to play include Radiators guitarist Camile Baudoin and bassist Reggie Scanlan, cellist Helen Gillet, drummer Kevin O'Day, Wild Magnolias percussionist Geechie Johnson, Evan Christopher on clarinet, Johnny Sansone on harmonica and a host of others. Northside Skull and Bones chief Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, Golden Comanches War Chief Juan Pardo and Black Eagles Big Chief Roddy Lewis will also appear.

  "I used to chase Indians every Mardi Gras morning, and then I wound up living across the street from one," Driver says, laughing. "How lucky is that?"

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