News / USA

    Glitter, Feathers, Paint: New Orleans Preps for Mardi Gras

    Ryan Ballard, left, founder of the Krewe of Chewbacchus Mardi Gras parade, works on a float with Keith Greene, King of Chewbacchus 2016, at their headquarters at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 2, 2016.
    Ryan Ballard, left, founder of the Krewe of Chewbacchus Mardi Gras parade, works on a float with Keith Greene, King of Chewbacchus 2016, at their headquarters at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 2, 2016.
    Associated Press

    It's glitter season in New Orleans. A time for feathers, paper mache, sequins, paint, bailing wire, bones, and just about any other item that can be used for decoration. Across garages, kitchen tables and warehouses, residents are feverishly sewing elaborate costumes, painting floats and decorating custom throws.

    Outside of New Orleans, Mardi Gras has often been perceived as a raucous time of drinking too much beer, throwing beads and nudity. But to those who live here and essentially put on the show for the world, it's a wildly creative time of personal expression, rich history and family fun. Behind the parades and pageantry are regular citizens who spend all year and often a lot of their own money to transform the city and themselves for a few days.
     
    The Associated Press talked to some of the men and women who make the magic happen.

    ___
     

    Cari Rhoton, a lieutenant in an all-female Mardi Gras parade group known as the Krewe of Muses, creates the group's signature shoes from her garage in Kenner, La., Jan. 10, 2016.Cari Rhoton, a lieutenant in an all-female Mardi Gras parade group known as the Krewe of Muses, creates the group's signature shoes from her garage in Kenner, La., Jan. 10, 2016.
    x
    Cari Rhoton, a lieutenant in an all-female Mardi Gras parade group known as the Krewe of Muses, creates the group's signature shoes from her garage in Kenner, La., Jan. 10, 2016.
    Cari Rhoton, a lieutenant in an all-female Mardi Gras parade group known as the Krewe of Muses, creates the group's signature shoes from her garage in Kenner, La., Jan. 10, 2016.

    Cari Rhoton uses glitter as a verb. In the garage of her Kenner, Louisiana, home she and her friends gather Sunday evenings to glitter shoes and decorate boots, ballet flats and stilettos. Rhoton is a member of the all-female Krewe of Muses whose 1,030 members will parade on Feb. 4. The women throw beads and other "throws'' to the crowd, but the real prizes are the roughly 30 custom-designed shoes that each woman is encouraged to make and hand out to lucky parade watchers.
     
    Rhoton gathers shoes all year round. Friends drop them off at her house or she finds them at garage sales or thrift stores. Sunday evenings she sits in her "Glitterage'' - a two-car garage where she has organized boxes of different colors of glitter, sequins and beads, a glue gun and boxes of embellishments that she'll put on the shoes.
     
    "They're little pieces of folk art I believe,'' she said. "You hand them off the float to people who come to the parade and it is a treasure. Once you give a shoe to someone you want to keep making shoes every year.''

    Ryan Ballard, founder of the Krewe of Chewbacchus Mardi Gras parade, makes adjustments to a hand made silicone tongue on a float at their headquarters at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 2, 2016.
    Ryan Ballard, founder of the Krewe of Chewbacchus Mardi Gras parade, makes adjustments to a hand made silicone tongue on a float at their headquarters at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 2, 2016.

    ___
     
    Like all good New Orleans creative projects, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus was conceived in a bar, said Ryan Ballard, who is the group's "Overlord.'' Ballard and a friend were talking about how there was no crossover between the science fiction and fantasy fans who dressed up for events like Comic-Con and Mardi Gras.
     
    The name is a mash-up of Chewbacca, the furry Wookiee from "Star Wars'' who was longtime friend to Han Solo, and Bacchus, the god of wine. Started six years ago, as a small group of sci-fi fans, Chewbacchus has grown into a parade of roughly 2,500 people and includes such diverse sub-krewes as the Rolling Elliotts, who dress up as Elliott from the film "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and ride bikes, and Krewe du Who, which celebrates the TV show Dr. Who.
     
    "For a lot of people who have never experienced Mardi Gras they think it's like girls gone wild. There's the cheap plastic beads. There's a bunch of people who get really drunk,'' said Ballard. "But that's really not what Mardi Gras is about. Mardi Gras is about, it's an art form ... We're making the universe one little drop better by doing this crazy, silly, whimsical thing we do.''

    Members of the Mowhawk Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and the only tribe on the city's west bank of the Mississippi River, practice inside Sheila's Fantasy Lounge in New Orleans, Jan. 3, 2016.
    Members of the Mowhawk Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and the only tribe on the city's west bank of the Mississippi River, practice inside Sheila's Fantasy Lounge in New Orleans, Jan. 3, 2016.

    ___
     
    For Tyrone Casby it was the sound of the drums that lured him in. Casby is the big chief of the Mohawk Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans. As a young boy, he remembers sneaking off to watch and listen to his brother practice the drums with his tribe. In 1967 he made his first suit and in 1980 he became the chief of the Mohawk Hunters, the only tribe on the Mississippi River city's west bank.
     
    Casby said the Indian outfits are, in part, a tribute to the Native Americans who would hide runaway slaves. But the drumbeats, singing and chanting are also an expression of the African culture from which they came. At the beginning, the outfits were made out of whatever people could find, and were burned after Mardi Gras, said Casby. But over time, they have evolved into elaborate works of art that take months to complete and are often preserved for posterity.
     
    Come Fat Tuesday morning, the tribe will congregate at one spot in their outfits, and commence the day by singing "Indian Red,'' a prayer asking God to guide them. Then they travel through the community, chanting and singing, and stopping at various bars, restaurants or houses for food and drink.
     
    "For me it's the drumbeats. And it still is. When I hear a certain drumbeat of music I'm ready to start sewing,'' Casby said.
     

    Chanel Lafargue decorates coconuts, gorgeous pieces often referred to as "Golden Nuggets," inside her studio in New Orleans, Jan. 5, 2016.
    Chanel Lafargue decorates coconuts, gorgeous pieces often referred to as "Golden Nuggets," inside her studio in New Orleans, Jan. 5, 2016.

    ___
     
    It started innocently enough. Chanel Lafargue's husband, a member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, asked her to decorate his coconuts, the signature throw that the group gives away during their parade. Fast forward many years later and Lafargue is now surrounded in the small workroom above her family's produce shop with hundreds of bags of coconuts and glitter - lots of glitter.
     
    Lafargue has decorated tens of thousands of coconuts for her husband and his friends over the years. The coconut - called the "Golden Nugget'' - has been given out by the historically black organization since about 1910. The original coconuts had the milk and coconut still inside. The modern version is just the shell with the hair removed, the coconut and the milk taken out and then resealed. Lafargue has painted hers with maps of Africa, scenes of stars and suns and likenesses of President Barack Obama.
     
    "For the past few Mardi Grases I have been delivering coconuts up till Mardi Gras morning. Literally carrying coconuts to the floats for people who didn't have time to come and pick their coconuts up,'' she said.

    Mardi Gras master float painter Raymond J. Bowie paints a float at Kern Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 16, 2016. Bowie has been painting Mardi Gras floats for nearly forty years.
    Mardi Gras master float painter Raymond J. Bowie paints a float at Kern Studios in New Orleans, Jan. 16, 2016. Bowie has been painting Mardi Gras floats for nearly forty years.

    ___
     
    When the parade of the Rex Organization rolls down St. Charles Ave. on Mardi Gras morning, the last float parade of the Carnival season, Raymond Joseph Bowie Sr. will likely not be among the throngs of onlookers throwing beads and cheering on the float. After months of increasingly intense work painting floats, the master artist at Kern Studios is generally too exhausted to do much besides watch the elaborate procession he helped create on television.
     
    Bowie started painting floats back in 1977. Bowie doesn't have formal art training but has progressed over the years to work on floats in some of the most well-known parades of Mardi Gras including Rex, Orpheus, Endymion and Zulu. Listening to music through his paint-spattered headphones _ his clothing resembles a Jackson Pollock painting _ Bowie takes the design the krewe comes up with for their floats and duplicates it on a much larger scale. That has become more challenging as the floats have become bigger and bigger over the years.
     
    "It means more than just a paycheck to me. That's why I work the way I work. I'm not going to leave a float till it's done, Period. The way I want it done,'' he said.
     

    Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, head of the Mardi Gras North Side Skull & Bone Gang, poses with his accoutrements for Mardi Gras day, in a cemetery in New Orleans, Jan. 7, 2016.
    Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, head of the Mardi Gras North Side Skull & Bone Gang, poses with his accoutrements for Mardi Gras day, in a cemetery in New Orleans, Jan. 7, 2016.

    ___
     
    For Bruce "Sunpie'' Barnes, Mardi Gras comes early. Around 5 a.m. on Fat Tuesday, he gathers with his "North Side Skull & Bone Gang'' at the Backstreet Cultural Museum dressed in skeleton-like costumes. He and others in the gang wear paper mache heads with horns attached, aprons made from canvas or leather and black underwear or sweats painted to resemble a skeleton.
     
    Their costumes are intended to represent the dead, and Barnes said they bring a serious message, reminding people of their mortality and the need to live a productive and good life. Before the sun rises, they gather to sing, dance, and go door-to-door to wake up the neighborhood. The gang sticks to the back streets of the city, a reminder of the days when black residents could not take part in the official Mardi Gras celebrations, Barnes said.
     
    "We sing and we knock on people's doors and wake them up. Might not be the most pleasant thing for some folks but hey, it's Mardi Gras,'' he said. "On Mardi Gras day if you don't want to hear any music, or pageantry or noise, you're in the wrong town.''

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora