Jay Monkey Dee still beating his Indian drums
By John Howell, Sr.
The carolers of another holiday came calling nearby Friday night, March 19 — St. Joseph’s Day on the Catholic religious calendar.
Among traditional local observances in New Orleans that include St. Joseph’s altars filled with delicious sweet baked goods in church buildings and stores, the day is also usually marked by Mardi Gras Indians donning elaborate feathered and beaded costumes and marching with drums, calls and chants before throngs of locals and tourists clicking away with their cameras.
Not so this year with many traditional gatherings of any kind stilled curbed by Covid.
Yet, while sitting in my living room Friday night, I heard a distant sound of beating drums and shouting.
At first, I just chalked it up to patrons at nearby Grits Bar whooping it up in celebration of the relaxed pandemic restrictions, but as the sounds started moving closer I began to recognize a definite rhythm and chant that suggested Mardi Gras Indians. Sure enough when I opened the door, I could see at least one fully-costumed Indian adorned in an outfit dominated by bright yellow feathers. He was accompanied by others beating tambourines and a drum in a slow march on Lyons Street.
When they got to the corner at Laurel, I could hear them calling for J. Monque’D.
J.Monque’D, (Jay Monkey Dee) some may recall, is the harmonica-blowing, blues-singing, legend-in-and-out-of-his-own mind character who has been our two-doors-down neighbor ever since we’ve lived on Laurel and who has occasionally been the subject of columns on these pages. Though mostly sidelined by health problems, once he gets on stage, he can still deliver a whopping, rocking performance.
Monque’D has long been a loyal Mardi Gras Indian, mostly associated with the Creole Wild West, but always willing to join any Indian jam going down.
And what happened on Friday night was apparently members of the Wild Tchoupitoulas paying their respects. They turned the corner and came up Laurel, stopping in the street in front of his house, chanting and calling him to the door. They called and they chanted and called some more, but no Monque’D appeared, so they eventually turned around and began heading off for their next destination.
When the main body had drifted down to the intersection, Monque’D finally came to his door and walked out on his porch. A few stragglers, seeing him, began to yell over the drumbeats and chants, for the main body to come back, which they did.
Once reassembled in the street in front of his house, with their honoree now in sight on his porch, the calling and chanting began in earnest and Monque’D was soon doing the calling.
You need to understand that wherever J. Monque’D is, he’s on a stage and performing and that includes his porch. Especially his porch. (Later, another neighbor and I speculated that his delay was probably because of him preening before stepping on stage.) But once he got there, his distinctive, booming baritone voice soon filled block and built the chorus into a frenzy. It was in a moment both ragged around the edges, yet so spontaneous and unique that it would only happen in this city.
Yet, my sense of place, custom and restraint was so thoroughly distilled in Panola that I couldn’t suppress a little sarcasm that grew into the thought: “Kind of like Christmas caroling, ain’t it — where young folks go around and sing quaint carols to old folks and shut-ins?”