Fat Tuesday brings the joy back

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For a few precious hours, old New Orleans was back. Elaborate floats streamed down Canal Street, brass bands blasted in the French Quarter and Mardi Gras Indians chanted and danced in the neighborhoods Tuesday.

Even the ubiquitous Southern Comfort billboards announced the city's defiant optimism: "Nothing cancels Mardi Gras. Nothing,"

To those who love this city, Mardi Gras 2006 was as much celebration as homecoming, a jubilant affirmation that not even the wrath of Hurricane Katrina could blow away the city's age-old cultural traditions.

"This year Mardi Gras is all about feeling normal," the celebrated singer Charmaine Neville told the crowd Monday night at Snug Harbor, the city's top jazz club. "It's about people being back in my city again."

If the turnout was unmistakably thinner than in years past, the revelers seemed to make up for that in high spirits and higher decibels. So intense was the crowd response, in fact, that visitors who just listened rather than watched might have believed nothing had changed since last year's celebration. The wall-to-wall carpeting of brightly colored beads that covered Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue--the major parade routes--also attested to the fervency with which New Orleanians and visitors embraced the day.

"I was a little worried that people were going to be depressed," said Cynthia Tucker, a former Evanston resident who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and has celebrated Fat Tuesday here annually since 1988. "But they don't seem to be. There's a really celebratory mood."

Still, Tucker and others noticed clear differences between this year's bash and earlier incarnations.

"It's a younger crowd--the elderly are missing," she said. "The whole demographic has changed. And it's a lot whiter."

Except away from the usual tourist spots--out in neighborhoods such as Treme, the central city and Uptown--where the Mardi Gras Indians returned in full glory.

Many devotees of the city's Indian subculture, an exotic mixture of African-American and Native American music and dance, wondered whether the spectacularly feathered costumes and ancients songs and chants would resurface this year. Much of this group has been displaced across Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other parts of the South and Southwest.

But by 7 a.m. Tuesday, it was clear that the Mardi Gras Indians were back with remarkable strength. Congo Nation pounded drums, danced exuberantly and paraded a stuffed panther's head through the streets of Treme, an area hard hit by the hurricane.

In Uptown at the intersection of Second and Dryades, several tribes converged. The stunning blue plumage of the Wild Magnolias and the bright yellow feathers of the Comanche Hunters danced in the noon light. While the chiefs of the two tribes faced each other, hundreds of locals screamed, sang, applauded and whistled, a riot of sight and sound.

"No one knew how many of the Indians would come back," said Joyce Jackson, a professor of ethnomusicology at Louisiana State University. "We are so happy to see they came out, even if it's just for today."

Indeed, many were planning to leave New Orleans on Tuesday night, as will so many of the celebrants who came here simply as a vote of support for the city.

Yet many people thought this year's event was dominated by locals rather than visitors. New Orleanians who previously stayed away from the tourist bash this time turned out in droves.

One woman watching a Mardi Gras Indian parade wore a wrinkled drab green dress with a handmade sign reading "Wrecked dress from a flooded home in mid city, N.O. LA." The T-shirt on one man carried large black letters that read "FEMA promised me a costume."

"We needed a relief from the stress of the past several months," said Jason Patterson, program director of the non-profit of the New Orleans Jazz Centennial Celebration, which brings cultural programs to the schools.

"For a while, a lot of people were depressed around here.

"During Mardi Gras, we can cut loose from the BS we have to deal with on a daily basis. It's a big relief."

Yet in many ways the Mardi Gras celebration looked different from classic installments of the past. Frenchmen Street--a two-block strip of cheek-by-jowl clubs and a primary music destination--typically would have been swarming with people the night before Fat Tuesday. On Monday evening, however, the street showed a certain amount of bustle but proved surprisingly easy to traverse for pedestrians and autos alike. Nightclubs such as the Blue Nile, d.b.a., the Spotted Cat and Cafe Brasil were far from full.

"A lot of people thought we shouldn't have Mardi Gras, that we should be helping the poor, not celebrating," said Aman Cheema, a cabdriver from Pakistan who has been here since 1999.

"I think we need to celebrate to show people we exist."

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hreich@tribune.com

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