Mardi Gras parades are back in New Orleans after a pandemic hiatus. And over the last week and a half, the city's beloved high school bands have returned to the streets.

"This is what makes Mardi Gras," says Asia Muhaimin, the band director at Warren Easton Charter High School.

Like a lot of native New Orleanians, Muhaimin lives for Mardi Gras. There's a recurring moment during parades that she describes as pure magic.

It's when the full band isn't playing, and just the snare drums are keeping beat. You can hear the taps and scrapes of dancers' shoes as they walk down the street. Then, all of a sudden, the shrill cry of the drum major's whistle breaks the silence. The drummers roll off the song, and the full band starts to play. Muhaimin gets chills just thinking about it.

"It happens constantly in the parade, but every time it happens, it seems like it's the first time it happens for me," she says.

There were no moments like this last year, because there were no parades. And while that's made the return of Mardi Gras this year all the more exciting, the interruption also had consequences.

The coronavirus had just arrived in the United States when parades rolled in 2020, and Carnival that year was one of the country's first super-spreader events.

While Mardi Gras technically wasn't canceled last year, it was a pretty sorry affair. There were no parades, no live music and most people stayed home. This year, while a number of COVID-19 restrictions including mask and vaccine mandates are still in place, celebrations are largely back to normal.

While band culture is still big in New Orleans, band directors say it's been stunted in recent years, and the pandemic didn't make things any better.

In New Orleans, all public schools are now charter schools after Hurricane Katrina decimated the existing school system in 2005, allowing for a swift transformation. There's no standard arts program across the system, and some elementary and middle schools don't provide any music instruction at all.

Muhaimin says when she was growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, music was everywhere. Everyone learned how to play an instrument in elementary or middle school, and the bands were huge.

"A lot of places are not supporting arts the way they should, music education in particular," Muhaimin says.

While some high schools, such as Warren Easton, still have robust music programs, their incoming freshmen sometimes have little to no band experience. Nowadays, the bands are smaller, especially this year.

That's because Mardi Gras parades are one of the most important recruitment opportunities bands have. Over the last two years, students have graduated and fewer new students have come to take their place.

Warren Easton's 60-piece band is 25% smaller this year than it was pre-COVID. Muhaimin says that, in addition to recruitment issues, the band lost members who dropped out during the height of the pandemic when bands weren't allowed to practice.

Smaller bands, like the ones in New Orleans this year, need to be skillful in order to produce a full sound with fewer musicians. Even a single mistake stands out, so everyone has to know their parts perfectly.

The band at Frederick A. Douglass High School had no members when Jordan Harper took it over at the start of the school year. Since then he's recruited 50 students, many of them first time musicians.

"If everybody holds their weight, plays their part the best that they can play it, we're gonna sound good," he says. "We've actually been achieving a great beginner band sound, in my opinion."

The day before their first parade, Harper gave the band a pep talk and reminded them to wear deodorant.

He offered other bits of advice: "Don't overblow," and "Only play the notes you know."

Mardi Gras is a strenuous time with over two weeks of nonstop parades. Music and choreography must be memorized, and bands typically battle one another informally for supremacy. There are few formal competitions; instead, performances are recorded and posted on YouTube.

Jalani Smith, a senior at Douglass and the band's drum major, says his goal heading into parade season was to make sure the crowd had a good time.

"Even though it's our first parade back, it's also their first parade back, so I just want to make sure everybody is having the time of their life," Smith says.

Drew Crosby, the drum major at Warren Easton says when the crowd is feeling good, so is he. He likes when the crowd engages with the band, dancing to the music and urging them to march higher and play louder.

"[There's] a lot of negative energy in New Orleans going on right now," Crosby says. "I just feel like [band] really makes us feel safe and makes us feel like a place we really want to be."

Violent crime has been high in recent weeks, and multiple teenagers and children in New Orleans have died from gun violence. Crosby says that over the years, band has kept him focused on school and his community.

"I just tell everyone I love them because I do," he says. "Band changed all our lives, honestly."

At Warren Easton's first parade of the season, the band made themselves known by chanting, "Here comes the purple and gold." They played with precision for hours, the drummers nonstop.

The crowd enthusiastically welcomed the band back; children in the crowd along the three-and-a-half-mile route grasped invisible drumsticks and played along to the beat. And Crosby led with a silver scepter in hand, raising his knees almost to his chest, his whistle conjuring band director Asia Muhaimin's magic moment over and over again.

Copyright 2022 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

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