Mardi Gras, a world known week-long party leading up to Fat Tuesday, is generally a time for masks, music and mayhem throughout the streets of America’s Southern Sin City, New Orleans. People from all over travel to the crescent city to indulge in mass amounts of alcohol, cajun and creole cuisines, and bourbon street nudity. Or so the world would like to think. For many people of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a time for something quite different from behind the masks.
Just before dawn, the thirty members of the Skeleton Krewe dress in handmade oversized papier mache skull masks, accompanied by creative skeleton costumes, come together in camaraderie to lead the annual Le Krewe d'Etat through the city streets, handing out wooden doubloons and D’Etat Gazette bulletins.
As in the tradition of Carnival, secrecy is very important to Le Krewe d'Etat. The identity of the ruler - the Dictator - is never revealed to the public, likewise, most of the members of the Krewes are shrouded in secrecy. It is with great honor that I spent an evening with a handful of the Skeleton Krewe, including their founder and yearly organizer, the “Grand Poobah”, in sworn secrecy, to reveal the heart of the Skeleton Krewe, but not the identities of the fraternity members therein.
The Skeleton Krewe officially made its debut in 1999, but it’s roots was seeded much earlier than that, when the Poobah, as a kid, came across a historical picture from the 1920s in the Sunday paper of a group of Mardi Gras revelers on Magazine Street wearing skull masks. The idea stuck with him through the years leading him to creating his own papier mache mask and parading down St. Charles Ave on Mardi Gras opening day. The following year, his friends joined in, and the year after that, more joined in, adding to the numbers. The Krewe now has thirty current members and continue to be one of the few leading Krewes that continue to craft their own costumes by hand and parade traditionally, without the use of tractors, floats, etc.
The Krewe’s Grand Poobah, a New Orleans native and local artist grew up with a deep interest in the early days of Mardi Gras, the days before the use of tractors, dancers, and most of the commercialism that surrounds the modern-day celebration. Most of the parades during the week of Mardi Gras do not parade down the original routes through the quarters anymore as the oversized floats cannot clear the narrow streets and low iron clad balconies. The Poobah started the Krewe because at the time, there were not a lot of street level involvement in Mardi Gras. Concerned that Mardi Gras shouldn’t be a spectator’s sport, he wanted to start a new tradition to get people involved. Both his father and grandfather had been members of the Jefferson City Buzzards Walking Krewe, so he was looking to that tradition when he began the Skeleton Krewe, the skeleton costume giving homage to the original Mardi Gras’ history.
Made up of perhaps the most creative close-knit group of individuals, some of the handmade costumes in the Krewe takes nearly eighty hours of work, mostly done solo. There are few rules in constructing the costumes, most notably, they should be in black and white and are encouraged to depict a being—whether that being is human, animal or mythical. Some members focus on artistry, while others aim for humor, satire or social justice. To give an example, the snake represents a known political figure and was a rendition of “Don’t Trend on Me”, while the blind referee was a comment on the blind referee, a skeleton referee with XX for eyes, that reputedly lost the Saints their well deserved victory for the playoffs. This past Mardi Gras year, “Que le dices al cansancio, abatimiento, a las ganas de no seguir adelante”, marked the twentieth year that the Skeleton Krewe marched, so to commemorate their twenty years in the grave, a special costume theme involved using the Roman numerals for twenty, XX. The Krewe constructed their costumes using Xs for the eyes of their masks, a remarkably grotesque yet fitting piece of the theme’s costume.
During our discussion at a bohemian lounge in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood took a turn to remembering Katrina in 2005.
“That year was different. Not many people were left in town to celebrate Mardi Gras,” the Poobah reminisced, “the celebration from that year on became different for the people of New Orleans. It became a story of strength, of resilience, and of healing. The first year after Katrina, very few people came. The second year, there was a little more. From that first year on, every year that we march, we see more and more people lining the streets for the celebration.”
I too was in New Orleans for that first Mardi Gras just after Katrina. Unlike the Mardi Gras of you will see this year, the streets remained eerily quiet. Most of the surrounding neighborhoods still had vast blocks of houses that were marked for demolition or stood abandoned and vacant, many shops remained closed and some areas just outside of New Orleans, such as Slidell still literally looked like a bomb went off in the city. The second year of Mardi Gras was very much like this as well. Along the shortened parade routes, there were just small pockets of spectators, very different from last year's crowds. Literally, the entire street is lined along every parade route throughout the city!
One of the things I wanted to understand, was how did a New Orleans born and raised native cope with the devastation that happened and continue to hold on to the traditions that make New Orleans so great. Most of the people that left New Orleans never returned. Many of those that did remain, know of someone who was killed in the storm, or know those who lost literally everything they had, maybe for generations past.
“One of the biggest things I dealt with during the process of rebuilding, was survivors guilt. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how lucky I was to have survived this hurricane that has literally taken the lives of so many,” reflects the Poobah. Many of the members of the Skeleton Krewe are artists within the New Orleans community, much of their art depicts the life and traditions of what it means to call New Orleans home. The Poobah himself is well known for his artistic pieces reflecting Mardi Gras traditional characters, symbols, and life in New Orleans.
Another member of the Krewe who remained silent throughout the interview said, “I work all year, live all year dealing with the throws of life, but on the morning of the parade, when I put on my mask, it is like a release of everything life has thrown at me. Some of us, we don’t even see each other but this one time of the year, and when we come together, it is alike a huge collaboration of release and celebration.”
Katrina has taken so much from the city of New Orleans, however, it has also brought the residents of the city closer together, for those that remained, and rebuilt. The city has become stronger and continues to recover and thrive. New Orleans remains my favorite city and will always be a special retreat with its mysteries, deep seated traditions and talented artists.
Mardi Gras can be a time of deep reflection and a reminder of the survival of a city, the resilience of life and the beauty in that every day can hold. It can be a time of renewal of a new year as well as of a letting go fo the past. For me, this is something I continue to learn every time I interview such talented people as the Skeleton Krewe.
You can catch the Skeleton Krewe this year in the opening parade on February 21 and again on February 25 in Jackson Square.Find them online at skeletonkrewe.com.