The draws of New Orleans Jazz Fest are legendary: a respite in the Gospel Tent to catch a bit of shade and hear the choirs and singers. A steaming, dark brown bowl of pheasant and duck gumbo or gooey cheese-filled crawfish bread.
Mardi Gras Indians on parade, a riot of colored feathers ruffling in the air. Ice-cold cups of strawberry lemonade or frozen cafe au lait. A breeze cutting through the crowd of thousands of music lovers.
But the festival — officially the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell — is more than just a tour stop. No matter how many festivalgoers buy tickets to see marquee headliners such as Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young, the fête at the Fair Grounds Race Course is still dedicated to regional heritage.
There are myriad ways to celebrate Louisiana’s cultural traditions at the fest, but one of the best places to start is the Louisiana Folklife Village, a semicircular ring of tents between the Fais Do-Do Stage and Kids Area.
Over two weekends, exhibitors will demonstrate basket-weaving, storytelling, boat-building, quilting, woodworking, costume crafting and more.
Cajun accordions, family-style
Clarence “Junior” Martin has been exhibiting his handmade Cajun accordions at Jazz Fest for nearly 20 years. He’ll display accordions and present workshops in Tent C, “Made By Hand: Crafts of Everyday Life in Louisiana,” which is dedicated to handmade instruments, for the second weekend of the festival. Martin Accordions in Scott, Louisiana, is a full-service shop that does accordion design, customization and repair.
Now 75, Martin didn’t start working with accordions until he was in his 40s, although he had been playing Cajun music since he was 13. After years of working in construction, his “body was giving out,” he said.
“I told my wife I needed to find something easier to do. … I had an accordion my wife had bought me … and I just took it all apart and I studied it.”
He wasn’t entirely self-taught; master accordion maker Marc Savoy assisted Martin as he learned to build squeezeboxes.
Martin prides himself on the family-oriented nature of his shop. He has two children and works especially closely with his daughter.
When asked what is the most misunderstood aspect of his craft, Martin said, “People come from all over the world out here, and they just can’t believe we have so much fun making accordions with our family.”
Martin also plays in a family band with his daughter and grandson.
While the shop entertains frequent tour buses full of visitors, Martin treasures the opportunity to show his craft at Jazz Fest. “It’s wonderful, a wonderful time to go out there. … We used to do about 13 festivals a year. We dropped every one except the Jazz (Fest). … For me, it’s good for business and it’s fun.”
How to be the prettiest
There are few cultural traditions more mysteriously majestic than the masking of Mardi Gras Indians. Big Chief Tyrone Casby, of the Mohawk Hunters, has been masking for more than 40 years.
He’ll discuss the tradition and demonstrate beading techniques in Tent D, “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler: Ritual & Celebration in Louisiana.”
Visitors to the tent should “expect a real history of the Mardi Gras Indian culture here in New Orleans,” Casby said.
They can view costumes on display and learn about the work and effort put into their crafting, as well as touch and feel some of the creations.
“I’ve been doing it for 50 years, so I consider myself a master at it,” Casby said. “The most difficult thing for me, tied to the sewing, is to get a concept in my head as to what I want to sew.”
The Big Chief tries to choose a design by late July or early August, so he has enough time to sew before Carnival season.
Casby relishes the opportunity to talk about his art and community with Jazz Fest visitors.
“What it does for me is it lets folks understand what the culture is all about. There’s a lot of misconception out there. Folks really get different snippets of who and what we are. … Perception is reality, and I think I could give them a lot of reality.”
Make it look ancient: bonsai
Guy Guidry has been practicing the art of bonsai for more than 30 years.
“A good bonsai reflects the effects of its natural environment, whether it be desert or swamp, to tell a story,” he said. “I try to make the illusion, even if it’s not an old tree, with bonsai techniques to create that look that it could possibly be centuries old.”
Bonsai is the technique of planting a tree in a pot. Guidry specializes in bald cypress, although he has also worked with juniper, maple and other woods.
During the second weekend of Jazz Fest, Guidry will be demonstrating techniques in Tent B, “The Work of Many Lives: Waterways in Louisiana.”
Guidry hopes to draw people in by creating a new bonsai every day. In addition to displaying three different bonsai, each more than 100 years old, he’ll also work on a new creation.
“I decided the crowds would enjoy it more, and I would be more productive, if I can take smaller bonsai and finish them each day.”
The incremental work should help give everyone something to admire, even if festivalgoers only have a few minutes to spare before heading to the next stage.
“There’s a new crowd every five minutes,” Guidry said.