Torch-Bearing Tradition Changes in New Orleans At Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, the flambeaux are torches that light the way for night parades. Traditionally, they have come from the city's black neighborhoods. But in the post-Katrina era, many flambeaux-carriers are no longer in town, and many torches are going unlit.

Torch-Bearing Tradition Changes in New Orleans

Torch-Bearing Tradition Changes in New Orleans

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At Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, the flambeaux are torches that light the way for night parades. Traditionally, they have come from the city's black neighborhoods. But in the post-Katrina era, many flambeaux-carriers are no longer in town, and many torches are going unlit.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. Today is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, that means parades day and night - and night time is when the flambeaux come out. Those are fiery torches carried in between the floats. Reporter Molly Peterson has been spending some time with the flambeaux carriers.

MOLLY PETERSON: They take a six-foot pole and on top of it, they balance a two-gallon bucket of kerosene. The bucket connects the burners below where the kerosene vapor is heated in the fire.

This is flambeaux. When Mardi Gras parading began, crews first hired carriers for these sake to reflect light under the rolling artwork of their float. And so now, as the sun falls, those who want to carry on carnival tradition show up a block behind the parade start to carry fire.

The hiring process is loose and lining of carriers is like herding cats.

Unidentified Man # 1: Sixteen, 17, 18, right here. Great.

Unidentified Man # 2: I want you to stay right here. There you go.

PETERSON: A big friendly bear of a man waves from the line - 29-year-old Lewis Lizzard(ph). His family owns some of the flambeaux hardware shared among different parades.

Mr. LEWIS LIZZARD (Flambeaux): We actors, really. We entertainers. You know we throw the flambeaux - somebody want to be flamboyant.

PETERSON: Balancing the fire is a tricky business. A loose trimmed torch will leak liquid flame, so police and the firemen watch over them, especially near spectators.

Mr. LIZZARD: On the curb.

Put your sticks on the curb. On the curb, on the curb.

PETERSON: Carriers say, that if you tote the flame, it's understood that you're going to get burned. But all worry fades at the moment and the sound the flambeaus wait on your (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of parade noise)

PETERSON: Parade crews take flambeaux $20 maybe $40 a night, but the real money is in the street. Tips in coins and paper. Carrier say it helps to be near a marching band, whipping the crowd's energy up.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: To encourage cash flow, the flame-throwers develop characters. They've got nicknames like Bucket and Mardi Gras Slim. Some wear costumes -camouflage plants, beads, or bandanas. And here, wearing a pimp hat, a pig nose and big black glasses is Bigot, also known as Marcus Bernard(ph). He's been doing this since the '70s.

Mr. Marcus Bernard (Flambeaux): We have a fire, and a fire's lit right, on a night like this. 'Cause I'm not coming out here for the money. I'm coming out here for the fun, the camaraderie with the fellahs I haven't seen all year since It's because of the hurricane and everything. I mean I still kind of down about I lost everything, but FEMA ain't give me nothing but ain't jacking that. It's for me, it's all about fun.

(Soundbite of music)

PETERSON: Torch carriers have been historically being black men, most from poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and The Treme. Even on a slow night, they turn a profit, and the best toters in the biggest parades can rake in $400 or $500 a night.

Most of the faithful flambeaus still aren't back in their homes. A few have died, a few still live far away. Unlikely recruits are stepping in. Like Tulane student, Alex Sandsome(ph) who grew up in Washington, D.C.

Mr. ALEX SANDSOME (Flambeaux Recruit): I'm a poor Yankee who just try to blend in anyway. So, you know, I figure anything I can do and do to myself and the general population around here, the better.

PETERSON: Nearby, Sandsome snaps pictures. He's been documenting flambeaux for 16 years and he's seen plenty of new faces since Katrina, especially last year.

Mr. STRAMBECKY (Photographer): I guess There were these Hispanic flambeaux that I guess were enlisted at the last minute. And they had no idea they were supposed to dance around and do all the things that the old time-ee flambeaux guys do.

PETERSON: The old time Strambecky's is talking about are only some 50 years old. In the real old times, Flambeaux served only to focus attention on the floats, marching straight and steady.

I learned that from a writer for the Crew of Chaos who inspected the flambeaux line - mask and scarlet silk head to toe. He told me his name was a secret but bystanders said he is Mike Shavernel(ph). Shavernel says flame toters are so scarce this year - a bidding war broke out.

Mr. MIKE SHAVERNEL (Writer): Tonight we had a third grade(ph) come up and offered to pay more to get some of the carriers from us, and no one has yet figured out how to address the problem.

PETERSON: Parade after parade, some flambeaux go untoted. At the longest usually lucrative event, Endymion, organizers were ready pay for more than 70 torchbearers - fewer than 40 showed up.

(Soundbite of torchbearers shouting)

Unidentified Man #4: I'm the man, what do you want to fling, give me a light. I need a light.

PETERSON: Each night of the festivities, old line and new flambeaux together wait to parade down the route. They won't count their money until later. Right now, it's just about the show.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in New Orleans.

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