ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And now dear listeners to New Orleans.
A.P. SANCHEZ, JR. (Official, Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club): Happy Mardi Gras. This year's theme of our parade is Zulu, Leading the Way Back Home. We want to welcome you back home. Zulu is ready and happy Mardi Gras.
(Soundbite of cheers)
CHADWICK: That voice welcoming Mardi Gras revelers back to the crescent city belongs to A.P. Sanchez, Jr. He's an official with the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The group is the oldest predominantly Black, Mardi Gras krewe. For many New Orleaneans, Mardi Gras could not begin without them. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent some time with the Zulus in New Orleans. Here's her report.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:
It's Saturday afternoon at Zulu headquarters. A clubhouse and gift store painted in the club signature gold and black in New Orleans Tremaine neighborhood. In the club store, Zulu officer Struther Prophet(ph) is busy packing up 2006 Mardi Gras accessories for Lisa Schneider(ph) and Andrea Long(ph) two members of Muses, an all women's group.
Mr. STRUTHER PROPHET (Zulu Officer): Tell me you got a cake. Tell the people you bought the whole cake it's okay.
Unidentified Woman #1: Thanks, Mr. Prophet.
Mr.PROPHET: You're welcome.
Unidentified Woman #2: All right, this is it. We're not coming back again before the parade. No, we're not coming back before the parade.
Mr. PROPHET: You got to you make my day. When you walk in here my day is made.
BATES: Schneider says the feeling is mutual. She and Long are riding with Zulu for the first time and they've been diligently preparing for the experience. They've purchased bead throws to toss to eager parade goers and they've even made Zulu's much coveted gifts to favored on lookers. Individually decorated coconut shells.
Ms. LISA SCHNEIDER: It's very exciting. Instead of being on the ground looking for coconuts we're going to be finding people to give them to which is really a lot of fun.
BATES: Long and Schneider are white and they're riding with New Orleans oldest predominately black krewe to fill in for members disbursed by Katrina. Zulu actually began in 1916 to mark the traditional Mardi Gras festivities sponsored by the elitist white krewes. Zulu officer Jay Banks says his club has always been more welcoming than some of his peers.
Mr. JAY BANKS (Zulu Officer): Zulu is every man's organization. We've got members of Zulu that we've got laborers to lawyers, Porters to politicians. We are the premier Mardi Gras organization in New Orleans.
BATES: What's happened to Zulu's members reflect in large part what's happened to the city. Banks says that ten members have died Katrina related deaths. A diaspora of Zulu's are spread throughout 44 states because their homes have been washed away. Virtually all of Banks family members lost their homes to the hurricane. Despite that though he and his family made two important decisions. One.
Mr. BANKS: We knew the day after that we were going to rebuild; we were going to come back; we were going to come back home.
BATES: And two.
Mr. BANKS: Whether it was one, two, two hundred, or five hundred, we were going to parade.
BATES: Back in the Zulu gift shop with its rapidly emptying shelves of throws and other souvenirs, Straughter Prophet reveals the surprise.
Mr. PROPHET: That's an African Zulu. Twenty.
Unidentified Woman #1: Twenty of them?
Mr. PROPHET: Will be walking in this parade.
Unidentified Woman #2: Zulu meets Zulu.
Mr. PROPHET: That's right. We're the real Zulu's they're guests.
BATES: Resplendent in their gold blazers and black trousers with knife sharp pleats, the Zulu's with their African brothers are marching down the streets of this city that is still struggling to come back. And judging from yesterday's Lundi Gras Festival in waterfront Waldenberg Park it looked as if the tide might be turning. On Monday crowds strained for a first look at King Zulu and his court as they were announced from the stage.
Unidentified Man: All right I think they coming now you all, here they come. The Zulu's Entourage.
BATES: Coming back wasn't a completely controversy free decision. So many members had lost homes and incomes, but Keith Doley(ph), a second generation Zulu who is rebuilding his home, said the membership made the right decision. For this year and for history.
Mr. KEITH DOLEY (Second Generation Zulu): It's very important for us to parade this year. That had we not paraded we would have lost that position of going first. Zulu starts Mardi Gras morning. We set the tempo.
BATES: So this morning the tempo was set and the men of Zulu with their attending courts and floats are parading. They started uptown where everyone else did but they'll end up at the Super Dome, the site of so much trauma in Katrina's immediate aftermath. From there accompanied by the joyous sounds of a New Orleans brass band Zulu will parade back to their clubhouse where the bon temps will for sure roulez. Karen Grigbsy Bates, NPR News, New Orleans.
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