NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It is fitting that the “second line” parade, a central pillar of New Orleans African-American musical tradition, is playing a prominent role in the events marking the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.
Like New Orleans, the marching brass bands and the colorful crowds they attract are survivors whose status is more celebrated than ever: a parade on Saturday in the blighted Lower Ninth Ward, accompanied by some of the city’s best known brass bands, has been billed as the biggest in the Big Easy yet.
Even so, the parade tradition has struggled since the 2005 storm, according to organizers. Higher parade fees, proposed new rules and a shortage of musical talent since a post-Katrina exodus put one of the city’s most treasured cultural traditions at risk.
Any threat to second-line parades is a threat to New Orleans itself, say the people behind the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. These organizations apply for permits from the city, organize police escorts, hire bands and raise money - sometimes up to $20,000 - for their specific neighborhood parade.
The struggle of putting parades together in often poor neighborhoods has long tied communities together, organizers say. But the task has become more difficult since Katrina.
“The city wants the visitors to have a good time this Saturday. We are putting on a nice show for everyone - a fake show,” said Tamara Jackson, president of the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, a group that supports the tradition of second-line parades.
Jackson, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, sued the city in 2006 when it increased fees to pay for heightened security after a parade shooting. The city backed down, but the fees - more than $2,000 for a police escort - remain far higher than before Katrina.
The city has sought to impose zoning laws that could restrict parade routes. Food and drinks vendors that typically come out on the parade route now must pay for permits.
The stresses of higher rents and parade fees have forced many Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs under since Katrina, Jackson says. There were more than 50 before the storm, and now there are only 32, she said.
Drawing from West African traditions, second-line roots go back to the late 1800s. Communities came together to give family members proper burials. An accompanying band would play a dirge on the way to the cemetery, and upbeat music on the return.
The second-line parades were named after the crowds that used to form behind a first line of grieving families.
The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs evolved from the first fund-raisers. Clubs now host suppers, hold raffles, organize bus trips to the casino - anything to pull together the needed cash. They are no longer restricted to funerals: second-line parades take place in the city on most Sundays from August to June, drawing large, dancing crowds in colorful dress.
Band and clubs members across the city said it has been a difficult decade for the parades, but they also said they would survive.
“We have still got a lot of rebuilding to do,” said Brenard Adams, a horn player for the To Be Continued Brass Band before a set this week at Celebration Hall, a modest venue in the city’s Seventh Ward.
“Second-line parades are all we have - Saints games and second lines” he said, referring to the city’s National Football League team, the New Orleans Saints.
Others went further.
“There is no way to stop the parades,” said Ed Buckner, president of the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “The culture is stronger than any city government.”
This week, talk of the future of second lines could be heard across New Orleans, as communities prepared for the anniversary. But at the city’s Dillard University on Friday morning, any concerns were set aside for an hour by a brass band composed of middle-school kids.
The six-strong band, smartly dressed in white shirts and black pants, made a shy, stuttering start as it led a procession of 75 people across the campus’s main lawn in tribute to the people who died during Katrina. But the players soon found their voice, the crowd started dancing and the scene began to feel something like a second-line parade.
Traditional decorated parasols were twirled, handkerchiefs of the university’s navy blue were waved.
When the short procession was over, the crowd gathered to release three doves to remember the people who lost their lives ten years ago.
“We release these in anticipation and hope for the future of this city,” Reverend Earnest Salsberry told the crowd.
The birds flew into the midday sky, holding close together before veering left behind a cluster of oak trees, out of sight.
Editing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken