Reflective Essay on the Traditions of the Mardi Gras Festival

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The Whole Gritty City is a film that entails the stories of multiple kids in marching bands throughout New Orleans. Three separate bands from three different schools, who’s all end goal is to play for the Mardi Gras festival every year. We see in this film from multiple point of views that marching bands within New Orleans play a huge part in these children’s every day lives, ultimately enacting as a ritual for many. In this essay I will be using Catherine Bell’s article, Characteristics of Ritual-Like Activities, to not only find clear applied examples within New Orleans marching bands to prove that this is an act of ritual, but also how this ritual functions in New Orleans society.

From Bell’s point of view, there are certain characteristics that a ritual must contain to actually be identified as a ritual. Some of the characteristics that we can see in this movie are performance, traditionalism, formalism, and invariance. Bell has provided us with clear definitions of these characteristics, so it is easy to identify when looking at these acts of ritual. First, starting with performance, Bell describes on page 160 how performance is all about being multi sensory and dramatic, including not only sounds but images through their performance which in turn can create values through the ones participating. This is seen in the film many times, the most important one being Mardi Gras parade. In the beginning of the film, we see a little boy named Bear practicing to be in the marching band, as well as many other young students, while their directors teach them how to perform, getting them ready for this important parade. Once this parade comes around, the whole city of New Orleans gathers to watch these bands perform and dance, giving the people performing a sense of belonging and importance through their dramatic act of performing for the city. Bear say’s in the film that he feels like he can’t be stopped because his hard work has paid off and is shown in the form of cheering of gratitude from the city when the parade is over. In this case, performance is enacted not only by the band, but by the audience as well. The next characteristic of ritual that we see in the film is traditionalism, which Bell describes as an act of proceedings that are similar to those before us such as ancestors or in this case, family members who also have played in the marching band in New Orleans. She also goes on to explain in her article that traditionalism is a way of showing the power of one’s culture through activities past down and carried out the same way, which we can see in this film (Bell, 2009). We see traditionalism first where they take elements from marching bands that have been playing in black New Orleans for many years such as formations, marching techniques, and have been incorporating these dramatic sounds and remarkable past performances of dance and marching into their own current performances,. Secondly, we can see traditionalism also in the fact that most of the children that were in the documentary had traditional ties to music within their immediate family. In the film we see a young girl who plays three instruments, and her reason is because her father also played in the Mardi Gras marching band and she wishes to follow the same journey as him. Both of these clear examples of traditionalism within New Orleans culture demonstrates the power that their culture has through music. The third characteristic that we can see in this film is formalism, which can be described by bell as the one of the most known characteristics of ritual, and when formalism is involved in this ritual, the ritual then becomes in a sense more legitimate. This forces people into roles within this ritual and society, which usually follow in an organized repetitive routine that is hard to change. This characteristic says a lot about the functions of a society, as well as the structure of the society thats functioning within the parameters of the ritual. The example in this film is the relationship between the director and the student when performing in these marching bands. The children must listen, and learned to be disciplined and also must understand the consequences, for example, if they do not practice or listen to their instructor, they might not be able to play. Throughout this film we see a clear distinct relationship between director and student, while there is violence and crime in the city of New Orleans, the directors come together to create a stable, structured environment for the children and teach them valuable lessons about life that they might not learn living on the streets of New Orleans. Multiple times throughout the films, the directors create a hierarchy relationship in which they are in charge, teaching children lessons how how to be in more self control and self discipline through the formalistic activities of the Marching band such as standing for long hours, practicing their instruments, and creating perfect formalized dances but also taking the advice of their director to guide them the way. The last characteristic found in this film is invariance which goes hand in this case with formalism. Invariance can best be described by Bell as an act in which the concept of time is ignored for the purpose of perfecting an act or completing an activity with immense purpose and careful execution. Activities that are focused on precision and self control are good examples of invariance, which we see throughout this film in many different ways, first off with the band itself. They must all come together in and synchronize their tones, spending months on months performing the song over and over again until they hit the notes just right. This doesn’t stop there, once learning the notes they must also learn to play the part; they spend just as much time playing as practicing marching the streets of New Orleans. Throughout the movie, they often face many issues and failures in which they have to try over and over again, but this is only to teach the concepts of invariance, self control and discipline which in turn educates the children to use these same methods and characteristics in life.

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The functions of this ritual within not only benefits the children and directors practicing but also affects the people of New Orleans. Throughout this film, we get an image of what it’s like to be an African American, after hurricane Katrina, living in New Orleans. During this time, there was a lot of violence, crime, and poverty happening in the streets of New Orleans, and many could not do anything to change these ways. The marching band for these students, gave an outlet for them to feel important, to feel like they are a part of something bigger than loss and hardships. When listening to these children document their days, a lot of them were victims of crime that happened in their immediate family. For example, Bear, the little boy playing in the band, his older brother who also played music was shot and killed, as well as lost a relative in Katrina; as he walked home from school he spoke into the camera of how he was afraid of the streets because of the violence. In the film he also showed a clip of cops driving up and down his street, while he expressed his other fears of his family going to jail for no apparent reason. The New Orleans marching band gave him hope as well a sense of security and structure in a world of anti structure and chaos which also translates over to the people of New Orleans. These people gather for three or four hours on the streets of New Orleans to honor the handwork that these bands have put in, cheering them on and watching them perform. I believe this gives not only the students a purpose to the community, but also gives the community a purpose to gather and become united especially in a time of despair. This ritual is not only to remember those in the past who have set up the paved ways for Mardi Gras, but also honor those performing in the present for giving society a ritual to lean on for emotional and political support.

In my opinion, New Orleans Marching bands are a ritual of resistance for a few reasons. My first reason is while this is a time period after Katrina hit, the poor were suffering especially those in the African American community while those around them quietly dismissed the drastic affect that Katrina had on New Orleans society. The marching bands gave may people a crutch to lean on when the city had let them economically and emotionally unjust. My other reason this is a ritual of resistance is many times throughout the movie we saw acts of violence that affected many people in many ways, and the whole point of these bands from the directors point of view is to give the children a way out of that violence, to teach them a better life, and not to turn to the bad ways of the New Orleans society consisting of gangs and drugs. It gave the students an opportunity to show that they were not all bad and didn’t all belong to the ”streets” and use the space of New Orleans as a vessel to express this opposition of societal violence.

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