As Riverfest’s 30th birthday bash starts winding down its opening night Friday, another cultural celebration kicks into gear. The Arkansas Queen riverboat will play host to Rhythm and Cruise, a party and concert featuring the sounds of the New Orleans Rhythm Conspiracy and a rare-outside-of-New-Orleans appearance by a collection of Mardi Gras Indians. The boat will board at 10 p.m. and depart at 11 p.m.
Born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Rhythm Conspiracy aims to pay tribute to New Orleans’ storied musical tradition through a gumbo of funk, soul and R&B. Bassist Jack Cruz, who’s played with everyone from James Booker to Mighty Sam McClain, started the band with fellow musicians George Sartin and Sally Stevens during their time as displaced New Orleanians living in Memphis. After adding three more players into the mix, the band released its debut album, “Dancin’ Ground,” earlier this year. That title is the translation of “Tchoupitoulas,” the Native American name for New Orleans.
Several members of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe performed on “Dancin’ Ground” and will be on hand on Friday night. A uniquely New Orleans tradition, Mardi Gras Indians (who are African Americans) dress in bright, flamboyant costumes and chant, sing and dance in honor of Native Americans who once sheltered runaway slaves. Traditionally, the Indians sew their own costumes in preparation for Carnival season, employing elaborate and expansive bead and feather work that can bulk an outfit to over 100 pounds (surely, a young George Clinton drew inspiration from a Mardi Gras Indian).
Mardi Gras, for the tribes, has always been about competition. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they sometimes worked out rivalries through violence. Today, for the more than 30 “Black Indian Tribes,” it’s all about looking right and representing for the culture. After Katrina, they’ve gotten wider media exposure and have even seen old costumes land in museum exhibits. Still, a chance to see an Indian in full regalia outside of New Orleans (or even in New Orleans outside of Mardi Gras) doesn’t come along that often.
Wild Man John Ellis and Big Chief Roderick Sylvas of the Wild Tchoupitoulas will join Spy Boy Juan Pardo of the Golden Commanches to accompany the band on the Arkansas Queen.
Rhythm and Cruise is the first event from Arkansas Convention and Event Marketing, a new company that aims to bring New Orleans music and culture to Arkansas. Company president John McClure says he hopes to import what New Orleanians do best: throw a party.
“Any vibrant city needs to have events to attract young people, and that’s one of the things that New Orleans has traditionally been able to do — make people want to visit and live in their city.”
Since it’s only seven hours away, McClure says, there’s no reason Arkansas shouldn’t get to enjoy the wealth of amazing New Orleans music on a regular basis.
Tickets for Rhythm and Cruise are $28.50 and are available at the Riverboat Giftshop in North Little Rock and at www.arconventionseandevents.com.