Nurturing the growth of a community event while preserving its local flavor is never easy — but the YMI Cultural Center has managed this feat with distinct harmony: Goombay, a late-summertime staple on “the Block” in downtown Asheville for the better part of two decades, is now the city’s second-largest street festival. (The Block, a remnant of the city’s historically black business distsrict, covers Eagle and Market streets, just south of Pack Square.)
“Goombay is known as an event that brings out the diversity in our community, an event that brings people together,” explains festival coordinator Oralene Simmons. Supporting that assessment, the North Carolina Recreation and Parks Society recently honored Goombay with an Arts and Humanities Award; the event was also nominated by the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials for its Arts and Culture Diversity Award.
And though the party has definitely expanded over the years (“It has grown tremendously, and now covers almost the entire length of Eagle Street,” Simmons notes), don’t expect it to eventually gobble up the rest of downtown, like a certain other Asheville summer festival.
“We don’t want to ever lose sight of our mission,” stresses Simmons. “Sometimes we think about bringing in large amounts of people and covering a lot more space, but we want to keep this a home celebration.”
Staying true to home is also a key theme for this year’s Goombay headliner, the Wild Magnolias. One of the oldest and most lavish of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras “Indian” tribes, the group — though more than 30 years old — has only recently begun enjoying wider popularity.
“I really think this is our year,” enthuses Glenn Gaines, who produced the Wild Magnolias’ latest album, Life is a Carnival (Capitol Records, 1999). “[The Mardi Gras Indian tradition] has been around for 100 years, and people are finally getting into it [beyond the confines of New Orleans]. I think part of it is that folks are really looking for something new.”
The group layers smooth R&B over a steady foundation of African-derived chanting and ancient polyrhythms. But though “everyone who has been exposed to the Wild Magnolias has gone crazy [for them],” continues Gaines, the tradition that spawned their music remains shrouded in mystery: “People don’t really know what’s [behind] it.”
Goombay, itself, has its roots in a historic holiday in Bermuda — where, each year, slaves were given freedom for a day. But the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are far less clear and have incited hot debate: Begun around the turn of the century, this Crescent City tradition is most likely a product of the city’s rich stew of African, Spanish, Native American and Creole cultures. At the same time, “it’s something that’s uniquely New Orleans,” declares bandleader Big Chief Bo Dollis, who has fronted the Wild Magnolias since the beginning.
The tribes come from black, working-class neighborhoods and are described as “part secret and spiritual society, part neighborhood social club.” During Mardi Gras, they parade through the streets in astounding, tropical-hued, infinitely layered “Indian” costumes — chanting, drumming and vying for glory. In earlier years, the competition between tribes was more serious: “Spyboys” — still dispatched today, for tradition’s sake — once patrolled the parade route to ward off potential armed confrontations between rival tribes.
In surefire ’90s fashion, however, the singular habits of the Mardi Gras Indians are now dancing across pop-culture boundaries: Emmylou Harris dubbed her latest, New Orleans-based band Spyboy — and much of her current material pulses with the unmistakable influence of the Wild Magnolias style. What’s more, the band itself has just been booked for a performance with rap artist Master P.
“A lot of younger kids are identifying with the Wild Magnolias; Mardi Gras Indian music is similar to rap — what with the call-and-response — and has influenced a lot of rappers,” remarks Gaines.
Glossy layers of revved-up funk add a further dimension to the group’s polyrhythms: Life is a Carnival features several tracks written by another New Orleans mystery, the legendary Dr. John.
“The Neville Brothers and Dr. John are examples of folks who [once] adhered to the [Mardi Gras Indian] culture, but as time went on, they never put their full attention into the concept,” notes Gaines. “The Wild Magnolias are the one group that never, ever stopped pushing that [music and culture].”
A fact which may change, if tribes continue to form at their present rate. From his indisputable position as a tribal elder, Dollis reports knowingly: “Every year, more groups come out, and [recently] there have been [even] more. At one time, there were 40 or 50 tribes, and then it dropped down to about 20, and now it’s back up to around 35.”
The Wild Magnolias are named after a street in the neighborhood where the tribe began, Dollis says. And while fierce community loyalty is the bedrock of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, personal pride may well be the secret to its longevity.
“Every year we make new suits, or sometimes we may use the same suit and add new designs, new patches, more beadwork — to make it more elaborate,” he reveals. Taking eight months to a year to perfect a costume is not unusual; indeed, “It takes some [performers] two years to complete one,” he says.
Dollis admits to being pleased by his group’s growing renown, but can’t help expressing wonder at non-New Orleans residents who view the Wild Magnolias as a new attraction. “Well, [the Mardi Gras Indian culture] is getting very popular now — but it always was popular, here,” he reminds us.
The status of Goombay itself seems to reflect the Wild Magnolias’ current situation. While the festival must be counted among this city’s own hardest-working traditions, after presenting a band this infectious, coordinators may find it challenging to keep the event a citywide specialty much longer.
The Goombay Festival, co-sponsored by the YMI Cultural Center and Asheville Parks and Recreation, will be held Friday through Sunday, Aug. 27-29. The Wild Magnolias (featuring Big Chief Bo Dollis and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux) will help ignite the weekend with an appearance at the festival kickoff on Aug. 27 (5 p.m. at City/County Plaza); they’ll be back with 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. performances on Aug. 28, plus a 3 p.m. finale on Aug. 29, at Eagle and Market streets. The Saturday-morning festivities begin with a downtown parade of drummers at 11:30 and continue with street and stage entertainment on Eagle and Market streets. Sunday kicks off with an outdoor worship service and gospel jubilee. Featured performers — in addition to the Wild Magnolias — include The Zohar Stilt Dancers, Imani Dance Company, Darrell Rose, The Stanley Baird Group and The Devotions. Scrumptious food, craft booths, a children’s carnival, a seniors’ “tropical paradise” and a drummer’s area will round out the weekend. For more info, call the YMI Cultural Center at 252-4614.