It is rare that you get the opportunity to experience a culture as rich, traditional and unique as the one I was introduced to during my time in New Orleans. One Tremé-based establishment was instrumental in allowing me to do so and it goes by the name of The Backstreet Cultural Museum.
I had hoped to get a feel for the real city in my time there, the one defined by the people and communities that make it what it is, not the garish tourist magnet that is Bourbon St. While Bourbon St. served a purpose in helping me establish my bearings on my first couple of days in NOLA, it was a on a parallel street four blocks north (Henriette Delille) that I surreptitiously found what I had been looking for. The street, just east of Louis Armstrong Park is home to a phenomenal institution by the name of The Backstreet Cultural Museum, a place which has far greater importance to the community around it than could have been imagined.
The view down Henriette Delille St. towards St. Augustine Church and the BCM | Photo by Alec Dudson
Having being told to check out the BCM by a knowledgeable and suitably white haired gent working the desk of my hostel I decided to give it a shot. After all, this was the same guy who had been responsible for me catching The Rebirth Brass Band at their weekly slot at the Maple Leaf, an act I had barely had chance to thank him for before this latest enthusiastic recommendation. I wandered down towards the park in typically sweltering Louisiana heat in search of the Museum, reaching Henriette Delille in a somewhat dishevelled state. The Museum is based in a house typical of the Tremé, so it took a double take for me to realise I had reached my destination, at which point I was greeted by three elderly gents sat out on the stoop enjoying a cold drink in the mid-day sun. I headed for the front door as one piped up and declared “We’re not open today, we’re decorating”, “Oh” I responded, turning on my heels to face the trio before inquiring, “are you open tomorrow?”. The three all exchanged somewhat confused glances, each had a sip or two of their refreshments before another beamed, “Hell…We’re open every day, just not today”. After a communal burst of laughter and thigh slapping, I bid the Greek chorus of Tremé elders adieu and decided to try again the following day.
After another incredible night of music, this time at the hands of the Soul Rebels at D.B.A. on Frenchmen St. I made my way again to the BCM, which to my delight was (as promised) very much open. Shuffling inside and greeted by Sylvester Jr. (son of Sylvester Francis, the museum’s founder) I instantly saw a kaleidoscopic collection of Mardi Gras Indian suits, donated by various Indian Tribe members in the room to my right hand side. The Tribes whose name derives from their flamboyant outfits’ roots in Native American ceremonial apparel are one of New Orleans’ most iconic and yet most mysterious elements. They only step out in full force and outfit on a select number of days a year and aside from Mardi Gras, are hard to come by with ‘Super Sunday’ and ‘All Saints Day’ the other big dates in the calender.
Inside the BCM | Photo Courtesy of Meghan Henshaw & Backstreet Cultural Museum
Over the course of the following hour at the BCM, it became obvious that each suit was more than that; it was an artefact not merely in the physical sense but also a tangible part of the community and tradition. Every item in the museum has a story to it and I had the pleasure of being with a great storyteller in Sylvester Jr. who gleefully regaled all manner of tales to his three-person audience. At one stage, much to my initial embarrassment someone followed up Sylvester’s sentiment that the owner of one of the suits had “died too young” by asking how they had passed. “Lead poisoning” was the solemn retort from our knowledgeable host; at this point I turned round and exclaimed that it was pretty odd to hear of someone dying of lead poisoning. Sylvester, raised his head, broke a somewhat fiendish smile and informed me that in NOLA, lead poisoning meant being shot.
On top of hosting an incredible collection of Mardi Gras parade crew items and memorabilia from Indian tribes, jazz funerals, Baby Dolls, and Skull & Bone Gangs, the BCM exists as a cultural hub for the Faubourg Tremé area. It is where second line parades begin and end and as a non-profit organisation works to preserve and celebrate the cultures that are so splendidly endemic to the area. Financially providing support for families in the area particularly in helping children get access to education, the Museum is in an important and constant dialogue with the community.
Slyvester Francis BCM Founder (white cap) films the All Saints parade | Photo by Alec Dudson
I was lucky enough that upon my visit, the annual All Saints Day parade was a few days away with Sylvester happy to pass along the details of the procession. This is something that really sums up the people of New Orleans, they always welcome you with open arms, and it is an attitude that extends the length and breadth of the city. The parade itself further displayed the Museum and its people’s tight connection with the community, with Sylvester Jr. helping to orchestrate the procession. Each year this ‘second line’ pays homage to community members who have passed in the last year with Ernest Skipper, the creator of ‘Shot Gun Joe’ and Al Morris, the Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang those honoured this time round.
As the parade passed through the streets of the Tremé, people emerged from their houses to join the throngs, whose route culminated at the entrance to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Almost an hour later, I found myself still stood outside the building along with another sixty or so residents and revellers alike as the institution which seemingly never closes the doors to its people, prepared for another long night.
The Big Chief takes a seat outside the BCM after the All Saints second line | Photo by Alec Dudson
For a wonderfully written history on the Tremé, I have to recommend Michael E. Crutcher Jr’s Tremé: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighbourhood. Georgia: University of Georgia Press. Finally, for those of you interested in getting a taste of what the New Orleans experience sounds like, here is a dozen hand picked brassy numbers.
By Alec Dudson