"Where the Roots Meet the Street"

Michael Smith's photo of a member of one of New Orleans' downtown Mardi Gras Indian gangs. There are more than 20 such "tribes" that dress up in elaborate garb and take to the streets on Mardi Gras morning (and other special occasions) to dance, sing and play their percussive music.

Says Smith, "There were at least four separate cultures from Africa within the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, each nearly as separate as the English, French, German and Italian that are all white cultures found in New Orleans. In the 1800s at least six various African languages were spoken in New Orleans. These groups lived in their own areas of town and rarely communicated with each other! Most people think of the Mardi Gras Indians as a unified culture, but actually they descend from different African lineages and use their own distinctive street languages and ceremonial dress styles.

"The downtown gangs, for example, use sequins and are more abstract and sculptural in the design of their outfits. The uptown tribes use beads and usually depict scenes of the Native American Indians with whom they feel they share a common plight. Altogether, the so-called Mardi Gras Indian culture has preserved ceremonial dress and, perhaps more important, the drumming traditions of Africa that are fundamental to jazz and all of New Orleans music."