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Oaklanders celebrate Mardi Gras with second line parade

on March 11, 2019

If there is one celebration that cannot be stopped, it’s the Mardi Gras parade in Oakland. Whether there is sunshine or it is raining cats and dogs, the good times have to roll on Fat Tuesday.

Despite the gloomy weather, people from across the Bay Area came to Oakland last week to celebrate the rich cultural tradition of New Orleans, twirling their parasols and handkerchiefs, and joining the “second line” in the street as drummers and the brass band, the MJ’s Brass Boppers, played. The event was organized by the Oakland Second Line Project and the Brass Boppers, who led the parade from Henry J. Kaiser Park and traveled to the New Parish club in uptown Oakland.

The Oakland Second Line Project is a free cultural community experience that brings the roots of second line history and spirit of community-building from New Orleans to people of color in Oakland. According to Nate Cameron, founder of the project, second line was born of West African circle dances, in which children danced in a second circle around the main circle of adults. It also refers to type of dancing—a wild, strutting dance that carries participants forward in pace with the brass band. By its very nature, it invites a crowd to join in on the excitement.

And it’s not just a dance in the street, but also a way to celebrate marriages, funerals and historical moments. In the Bay Area, it provided something unique that some Oaklanders haven’t experienced, especially in the rain. “It brings joy for me to share what my culture means to me,” said Cameron. “It is really to sparks people’s mind that we as black people created safe spaces out of this beautiful thing that we have and come together as one.”

Cameron, a New Orleans native, relocated to Oakland in 2015 and works closely with the Golden Gate Community Association and the California Symphony’s Sound Minds After School music program. Through the second line project, Cameron and the Brass Boppers aim to bring free quality black cultural arts events to communities that traditionally would not have access to them, and to leave people inspired with ideas, skills and resources.

In addition to being the bass drummer, lead vocalist and business manager for the Brass Boppers, Cameron is also the lead vocalist of Oakland-based psychedelic funk and soul fusion band CitizenFive. He also serves as the tour manager for the award-winning band, Tank and the Bangas, and as the co-founder of the Bay Area based cultural event company Them People Productions, along with his wife, Krystle. 

Cameron found his home in “the Town” thanks to the “heavy cultural ties” it has to his native Louisiana. “Oakland and New Orleans are both port cities,” said Cameron. “Oakland has a very heavy culture and history along with New Orleans. Those ties are a very big thing, especially with the diversity.”

Those exact cultural ties led to Cameron bringing the second line tradition to Oakland, including last Tuesday with the Mardi Gras parade. In the New Orleans tradition, Carnival season always begins on January 6, which is King’s Day, or the Feast of the Epiphany. The season ends once Lent starts, the 40-day fast that Catholics observe every spring before Easter. Mardi Gras—or “Fat Tuesday”—is a feast before the fasting season begins. The date changes every year because Easter Sunday is never on the same Sunday each year. Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

As people kicked off Mardi Gras in Oakland, it attracted hundreds as the sound traveled in the streets.“It was a blast. The more wet, the juicier the vibe got,” said John Wolfstone. “To bring the spirit of Mardi Gras and mix it with Oakland, we got something special to awaken the season of spring.”

José Carrasco, a native of Louisiana who grew up in Baton Rouge, knew what it meant to have a good time. “If you’re into carnival, it could be Mardi Gras, Trinidad, or Brazil … rain or shine, it’s a part of who you are,” said Carrasco. “It is a part of your culture and all about celebrating a good time.”

The parade was also about spreading the cultural traditions of the second line project. Monica Hastings-Smith, the lead teacher of BoomShake—a multicultural music and storytelling program for women who use music for creative expression and social change—participated in the event alongside Batalá San Francisco, a community band that plays samba reggae, an Afro-Brazilian genre of music developed in Bahia, Brazil.

“Being an African American, this is a part of my diasporatic connection and important for me to celebrate these moments,” said Smith. “New Orleans culture is thick and deep in Oakland, so it’s real natural for us to pick up and express our southern culture.” 


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