It takes some finding, which makes this opening sequence apt metaphor for Aaron Walker’s 'Bury The Hatchet.'
The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans have been a part of that city’s culture for hundreds of years, yet few visitors have ever seen one. That’s because the Chiefs don’t do Bourbon Street and its commercialized Mardi Gras. Their centuries old traditions are played out in the back streets and laneways where the community they serve live. For these are no maskers for a day and they throw no beads away and in ‘Bury the Hatchet’ Big Easy resident and award winning director Aaron Walker brings their story to vivid, pulsing, life.
The Mardi Gras Indians traditions are based on honouring the memories of the Choctaw Indians who sheltered runaway slaves in the bayous of Louisiana. For the descendants of those slaves it’s become a manifestation of grassroots New Orleans African-American culture.
“ At the time I first became interested in the project, the Chiefs were hard to find, you had to know where to look, it was an unusual thing to see one. That is unusual because New Orleans is so open to people and doing different things. New Orleans is kind of like a small town where you can run into Allen Toussaint at the grocery store.”
Music turned out to be the link to the Mardi Gras Indians. Having already lensed a number of music-oriented docs with roots luminaries including Buckwheat Zydeco and The Blind Boys of Alabama, Walker’s work was well known in the community and he was put in touch with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Boudreaux was the perfect fit as he’s not only a Big Chief but also a singer and musician fronting his group The Golden Eagles.
Where once the Mardi Gras Indians were plagued by intertribal violence, today these African-American tribes take to the backstreets of New Orleans on Mardis Gras and St. Joseph’s Night dressed in fantastically elaborate Native American influenced costumes that they sew over the course of the year. When tribes meet instead of attacking each other with hatchets and knives, as used to be the case, they battle over which Chief has the prettiest suit.
Walker takes us deep inside the world of the Mardi Gras Indians and the city’s vital and fragile black community, interweaving the stories of three Big Chiefs, Alfred Doucette, Monk Boudreaux and Victor Harris, into an emotional narrative of celebration and lament, uncertainty about the future and hope for its betterment.
The hope is still much needed, as more than five years after the devastation of Katrina, perhaps Bury The Hatchet’s most important message is that New Orleans still isn’t back together.
“ There’s a trend to gentrification in New Orleans that isn’t good for the creative community. It’s like a struggle between tourism and those things which make the city attractive to tourists in the first place. On the other hand this town depends on tourism to such a degree there’s a danger of real New Orleans culture being neglected in favour of a Disneyland”.
While the Chiefs differ in many ways, they’re united in a passion for their traditions and the drive to pass it on.
“ When I first started the project it seemed like documenting a vanishing culture but fate had a very different outcome in mind. It seems like after the destruction of Katrina, the Mardi Grad Indians went from something for the old folk that was tolerated by the youth to something that’s now regarded as cool. We’re seeing more and more younger people getting into it”.
The struggle to rebuild New Orleans is mirrored in the struggle of the Chiefs to keep their culture vital for the community, which supports and is also dependent upon them for leadership.
The importance of their role in New Orleans black culture is emphasised in one the movie’s more poignant scenes in which the assembled Chiefs, having finally won their day in court to protest against the heavy-handed policing which always seems to follow The Chiefs’ events, are aghast as they watch their Chief of Chiefs Tootie Montana collapse from a fatal heart attack
Through it all, setting the tone and driving the pace is the music. The kind of music we don’t get to hear often enough. About half the tunes featured are traditional, most of the rest released only on small New Orleans labels and very few from the majors. Playing them out is a roster of New Orleans finest roots musicians, spanning generations.
Among them The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Jimmy Scott, jazz pianist George Winston, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and other regional luminaries. Additional scoring was provided by Winston who came by to offer his services to Walker as soon as he found out about the project.
This soundtrack has all the quality and pedigree to do for New Orleans music what the soundtrack of Oh Brother Where Art Thou did for Appalachian music.
Don’t leave too soon as the end credits roll over a swamp rockin’ electrified version of ‘Bury The Hatchet’ from Chief Monk Boudreau and The Golden Eagles that’ll send you home with a strut in your step.
Bury The Hatchet screens as part of the Hot Docs program May 1(7.00pm) and May 3(4.30pm) at Toronto’s Cumberland 3 Cinema.
For a full lineup of players performing on the soundtrack visit www.burythehatchetfilm.com