Jazz Fest visitors seeking authentic New Orleans sounds at the Fair Grounds should keep an ear cocked for the unmistakable voice of Arthur "Mr. Okra" Robertson amid the brass-band thumps and Mardi Gras Indian chants. He won't be singing any songs, but most likely hollering a sales pitch that has made him a mobile cultural icon in a string of downtown neighborhoods.
Mr. Okra, as many people know him, is a roving produce vendor, selling fruit and vegetables from the tailgate of a chugging 20-year-old Ford pickup decked in folk-art renderings of fruit, and loudly announcing the goodness of his wares through a gravelly loudspeaker.
"I have oranges and bananas, I have good lemons, broc-oh-lee," his calls resound around his routes from his Eighth Ward home to Mid-City. He can be heard from blocks away, a familiar clarion call for residents to get some cash and come out for some curbside shopping.
He seems like a New Orleans original, though he is carrying on a family tradition started by his father, the late Nathan Robertson.
"He was the first Mr. Okra man," says Arthur, now 65. "He started selling fruit from a wheelbarrow, then from a horse and buggy, then from a truck. I rode around with him from way back. I had other jobs, working at service stations, fixing 18-wheelers. But I always came back to this."
Robertson was featured in a music video by the local rock band Morning 40 Federation, a brush with Bywater bohemia that led to an extreme makeover for his truck courtesy of the local artist known as Dr. Bob.
"The band said Dr. Bob was going to paint up my truck. Then when I see it, it's all like this. Didn't expect that. But it's good. It's been helping me with business ever since. It really gets people's attention when we're driving around."
Mr. Okra will sell fruit from his truck parked near the Congo Square area at Jazz Fest on Friday.
Friday, May 1