- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — It’s the local lifeblood of music and marching bands that many here say hold the Mardi Gras festivities together — rather than the bead-throwing, partying and alcohol-soaked chaos often associated with the city’s most famous celebration.

The region’s top-notch high-school marching bands are at the center of the party as they trumpet their way through the cheering mobs. Like everyone else, they are struggling for rebirth after losing hundreds of members, displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“I have a different sense of pride,” says Christopher Smith, a 16-year-old saxophonist in the “MAX Band,” which was formed when three of the city’s diminished Catholic prep schools merged to form the MAX School after the hurricane.

“I see how our band members are scattered all over the country, and we’re still trying to stick to our traditions and our roots like they were before the hurricane,” said the high school junior, who has participated in the Mardi Gras festivities since he was 13.

Some have criticized the idea of celebrating Mardi Gras while many still are grieving and the city’s population and economy remain damaged. Most hope that the celebration brings in much-needed tourist dollars, and, perhaps more importantly, renews the city’s image.

The formation of the MAX Band as part of the MAX School seems symbolic of the sort of changes that New Orleanians have needed to embrace in order to move forward.

The school has students who previously attended St. Mary’s Academy and St. Augustine High School — both closed since they flooded six months ago when the city’s levees broke — and Xavier University Preparatory school, whose building escaped largely unscathed.

“I’m just happy to see them pulling together because it’s real hard right now,” said Christopher, whose home in eastern New Orleans was ravaged by floodwaters and who now lives with family friends in Algiers, a repopulated section of the city.

“Not every student came back,” says Joyce Whitfield, the school’s director of development. The goal of the school has been “to make it so that the students who could come back would have as normal a school year as possible.”

Before Katrina, the St. Augustine Marching 100 was featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The solid reputation of the three bands, coupled with their situation, attracted a video crew from MTV News.

An added twist is the sharp rivalry that existed among the three schools.

“I would have never thought I’d be in the same band with my rival schools,” said La’Rencia Patterson, 17, the leader of the MAX Band’s clarinet section. She would have been captain of the St. Mary’s band, had the school not flooded.

“It’s shocking to see a school like this come together, but we just have to be our best; that’s all we can do,” said La’Rencia, whose family home in southern New Orleans was flooded.

Playing a variety of tunes — from “Stand By Me” to “The March Grandioso” — the MAX Band marched ahead of seven other area high schools in the first major post-Katrina Mardi Gras parade Saturday. MAX also marched yesterday and is scheduled for five more parades as the celebrations roll toward its raucous climax on Fat Tuesday — the last day before the six-week Catholic fasting period of Lent before Easter.

Miss Whitfield said she doesn’t know how many students remain displaced.

“Three-quarters of the city is gone, period,” she said, adding among the 610 students enrolled in the MAX School, many are “now living on ships with their parents, with friends and in trailers.”

“It’s been a really, really difficult year here, and the one thing we’re all trying to do is not let that difficulty carry over into the lives of these students.”

Lester Wilson, a music instructor of the MAX Band, said, “What makes this Mardi Gras special is that we’re going to show that New Orleans can bounce back from perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history. We’re going to show it by playing and marching with pride.”

The birthplace of jazz, New Orleans always has been about music. Prior to Katrina, about 80 percent of the city’s economy came from the tourism generated by the music, restaurant and party scene. On any given night last week, as many as 15 bands could be heard playing in bars along Bourbon Street.

But away from downtown, near the residential start of the main 40-block-long central parade routes, residents said Mardi Gras means more than Bourbon Street and drunken mayhem.

“It’s really not ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos all the time,” said Steven Clinton, 49, who watched Saturday’s parade start about two miles from downtown with his wife, Susan. “If you want that, go to the French Quarter. If you come out here, around the corner, it’s all families and kids.”

As the thump, thump of drums rang out, the trumpets sounded and the colorful floats rolled by, Mrs. Clinton, 47, called it “just awesome to see the ingenuity of several bands pulling together.”

“These kids that are in the band now grew up watching the bands from years before; they’ve waited all their lives for this,” she said. “[Mardi Gras] is part of our tradition of who we are. It’s families, it’s friends, you can totally lose yourself and your problems in it.”

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