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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Zulus Bring Zulus To New Orleans by Mary Alexander

Twenty Zulu dancers from South Africa are headed for New Orleans to take part in the annual Mardi Gras carnival Tuesday - as part of the city’s 100-year-old Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parade, according to Sapa.

The club was started in 1909 as a social aid cooperative and burial society, providing insurance for the black community before mainstream companies would. While its members are mostly black, none of them are actually Zulus.

The real Zulu dancers are to give the club a boost, after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina nearly led to their parade being cancelled. Most members lived in two of the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, where two-thirds lost their homes - and six their lives.

"After what they’d been through, I really wanted to do this," Mardi Gras float-builder Blaine Kern told Sapa. Kern paid his own way to South Africa to make arrangements for the dancers to go to New Orleans after he heard the Zulu Club parade may not roll.

He knew club officials had been toying for years with the idea of bringing real Zulus to dance at the Mardi Gras.

"They’re dancers," he told Sapa, "and they’ll lead this year’s Zulu parade in full traditional dress, complete with spears and shields."

Flamboyant and whimsical

But they might feel a trifle underdressed. The Zulu Club is characterised by the flamboyant and highly elaborate costumes both men and women wear on parade and at other occasions. These brightly coloured constructions are complete with feathered headdresses, tights, detailed embroidery and other stitchwork, and each has its own theme - from Shrek to gambling to African masks.

The club also has a whimsical vocabulary and structure, with officials named King, Queen and Dukes, as well as the Big Shot, Witch Doctor, Mr Big Stuff, Province Prince and Soulful Warrior.

By part explanation: "The Big Shot outshines the King," the club says on its website. "The term 'outshine' was used in the earlier days which meant to look better than someone else in competition. The Big Shot is the man behind the throne. No one can see the King without seeing the Big Shot first."

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong was Zulu King in 1949. Ike Wheeler, the current King, told Sapa the club had been trying to bring real Zulus to New Orleans for years.

He said when the idea of cancelling the parade was mooted, the members' response was a unanimous: "How can we have a Mardi Gras without Zulus?"

This article appears on South Africa - Alive With Possibility: The Official Gateway

Mary Alexander

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

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