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A Mardi Gras song and dance about books during Christmas

Audio 07:16
Little Queen Malon McKee of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society spreading the love of reading to New Orleans children
Little Queen Malon McKee of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society spreading the love of reading to New Orleans children Jeffrey David Ehrenreich

In New Orleans, The Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, a Mardi Gras Black Masking group, encourages children to read through an annual ceremony, during the Christmas holiday season, which is a feast for the eyes and ears.


Listen to Queen Cherice and Big Chief Delco here

The Mardi Gras Indians, as they are known in New Orleans, is unique to this city and refers to the black population of New Orleans who celebrates Mardi Gras in a rich Masking tradition that comes with highly ornate and sophisticated outfits.

It is only twice a year - during Mardi Gras in February and on Super Sunday (Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph day) - that the Black Masking Indians parade the streets of New Orleans in full regalia.

But during Christmas season, to honour Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. who passed away in 1998, The Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society make an exception.

They put their "suits" for the occasion to give books to young children.

"My father was an avid reader and my mother thought it would be a wonderful way to honour his memory. The schools where we provide books for the children are primarily African-American families and some of the families are economically-challenged," explains Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of Donald Harrison Sr. and Herreast Harrison.

The programme started in 2007, after hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Its widespread ravages across New Orleans destroyed countless books.

In a staged performance, The Guardians of the Flame Indians, dress up in their ceremonial attire to give books to young children.

"We want children to understand that this is a rich cultural tradition, that is uniquely New Orleans, and it's for everyone. We exist to bring beauty to our community," says Queen Cherice.

The books, which complement Louisana state's school curriculum, are also meant to "enhance the academic experience" of the children.

Music makes it real

Music is an essential part of the Mardi Gras Indians performance as much as the lavishly ornate home-made costumes or 'suits'. It plays a prominent role in the book-gifting ceremony.

"It's just simple," says Big Chief Clarence "Delco" Dalcour of the Creole Osceolas Black Masking Indians.

"If you get the kids to sing it, they're into the teaching of what Miss Cherice and the Maroons do at their schools."

And he springs up with an impromptu "Read, read, read" chant to make a point.

"Books is very important. We all come from some kind of book, even if it was the Indians writing on a piece of clay or Africans writing on a tree. You wouldn't have the knowledge if you wouldn't have read a book on doing what you do," adds the 70 year old Big Chief.

Another important component of the programme is that the African-American children can relate to The Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society on various levels.

A reflection of who they are

" [The children] have an opportunity to interact with cultural artists that look like [them]. All heroes aren't in text books, heroes are at the grocery store, you see them at the gas station," declares Queen Cherice.

"Additionally, it helps the children know that someone in the community cares enough about [them] to purchase a high quality book with images that look like [them]."

The Guardians interact with the children while involving them, role-playing, in a traditional Indian song "Two Way Pocky Way" which translates as "You go your way, I go my way".

A song described by the elders as a conflict resolution song.

"We tell the children you can use this song if you don't want to have an argument or someone is not being nice to you. Just say 'Two way pocky way', it's a magic word, and you walk away," says Queen Cherice.

It's no surprise that the colourful annual ceremony with The Guardians of the Flame leave an enduring impression on the young minds and that, years later, adults come up to Herreast Harrison to tell her that they still have the first book she gave them.

Follow Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson of The Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society on Twitter @queenreesie

Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

Special thanks to Big Chief Clarence "Delco" Dalcour of the Creole Osceolas Black Masking Indians who very exceptionally allowed the publication of his photograph.

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