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Mardi Gras Rewind: Marching Bands Battle Before Bacchus


by Ryan Sparks/Photos by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

For residents of the riverside neighborhoods in Uptown, the noise of the port is a part of life. Not much can overpower the squealing wheels of the freight trains or the broad tones of a ship’s horns. Except the sounds of a parade, of course. On the Carnival nights when the superkrewes of Bacchus and Orpheus roll, the stretch of Tchoupitoulas between Napoleon Avenue and Bordeaux turns into a full-on battleground for the marching bands getting ready to march down St. Charles Ave.  

 

 

These parades originate at the foot of Napoleon Avenue and stack their floats on Tchoupitoulas street toward downtown. Instead of stashing all the marching bands down the side streets, the organizers assemble all of the groups on the opposite side of the avenue and feed them into the parade lineup one at a time.  Unlike the riders gathered around their floats, there’s not much for the bands to do as they wait but size each other up and show off their repertoire.  For me, catching the clash has always been a highlight of the last weekend of Carnival. The battles double as a great remedy for all the times a band has passed by on the route with horns at ease and only the placeholder pattern of pat-pat, tat-tat-ra-tat coming from the drumline.

 

 

(Shaw High School Marching Band/photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

 

Late on Sunday afternoon before Bacchus, it took some time to get the showdown rolling. There was a lot of jogging back and forth as bands arrived, hopping off of buses like they were being deployed. The uniformed units hustled to locations they’ve traditionally occupied in the past or get shifted back depending on their order in the parade.  The short-tall-short procession of the Roots of Music kids wove between the older high school kids; G.W. Carver in their bright orange and green held fast to their original spot in the street near Dick and Jenny’s.  

 

 

(Edna Karr Marching Band/photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

 

Once all the hats were on straight and the capes were straightened, once the horns were warm, the reeds were wet, and the wrists were limber, the kids’ eyes started scanning the territory, meeting eyes over the tops of school banners. Only East Jefferson High seemed really eager to mix it up early on.  Their drumline built a warm-up riff into a full boast, and right when they ceased, a tuba player blasted a single bleat towards the John McDonogh Trojans. The Trojans seemed poised to respond, but their bandleader shut them down with a single whistle.  It seems they still needed some to count heads and focus. It wasn’t really until Bacchus was underway that the swagger came in strong supply.

 

 

(Mcdonogh 35 Marching Band/Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

 

When bands square off in two- or three-way battles, they respectfully trade songs instead of playing over each other. Still, they know that a marching band’s worth is estimated as much by its discipline and unity as its volume and range, so there are plenty of attempts to break another school’s concentration.  Baton twirlers run through their routines, throwing hip checks toward a band across the way or taunting someone else’s botched spin. Trumpet squads sway together holding their arms crossed over their horns and drummers lean and roll on their ankles throwing out aggressive runs.  

 

When a band was called up to the parade, another school that’s been waiting on the outer edges stepped up, sometimes taking on the last song played and showing off their own take on the same melody. When Edna Karr High from Algiers bowed out of a battle with the Shaw Cardinals, visiting from Cleveland, Ohio, another school rushed to replace them: Oak Park High from East Michigan. Once this interstate rivalry started, no one else could budge in.  The two bands locked horns in the center of the parking lot for over an hour and a half, their respective bandleaders standing calmly with their backs to each other while the full fury of the music blasted over them.

 

 

(East Jeff Marching Band/photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

 

The floats continued to chug into sight of the waiting crowds, eliciting cheers, but all that is background noise to the bands and their framework of supporters.  Non-band friends clutched in small groups happy to be away from their parents.  Chaperones and boosters decked head to toe in school colors, many of them band alumni themselves, aimed their iPads, recording the action. Sophie B. Wright, being from the neighborhood, seemed to have the largest amount of drop-by supporters, but River Rouge High, also visiting from Michigan, seemed almost lonely by the bike racks. No matter the amount of audience support, the two schools engaged in a spirited tradeoff with little thought spent of saving their best for the parade route. Cymbalists from both schools dipped and waved, collapsing air into fast-paced beats, pash pash pash.  

 

Once most of the bands were absorbed into the parade and the port noise started to bleed through just a little bit, I didn't have enough energy to turn the corner and fight the thick throng on the neutral ground for a glimpse of the Bacchagator, but my heart was still thrumming like a quad tom set. The kids had six miles to march. I lifted up a toast to them and promise to be there when they come back to the beginning a little over a year from now.

 

 




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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

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