A Crafty Celebration of Louisiana Roots

From sweet-grass baskets to fine woodcarving, artisans' works get prime billing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

EACH year at the end of April, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival mounts an open-air sensory extravaganza that celebrates the music, food, and crafts legacy of this colorful part of the country. The music - jazz, zydeco, blues, and gospel - has attracted ardent followers to the festival for 25 years.

Equally incendiary as the hot jazz is the Cajun and Creole food like jambalaya and barbecued alligator sold by food vendors.

A third attraction is a multicultural array of crafts.

Part of the festival's mission is to preserve Louisiana heritage and educate the public about its rich folk traditions. Hundreds of artisans display their work and demonstrate centuries-old techniques in three separate areas of the festival's grounds.

The Contemporary Crafts Village included 63 artisans showing handicrafts in diverse media. Raku pottery, blown glass, leather, and woodwork alternated with more down-home objects like sweet-grass baskets and patchwork quilts.

Zydeco boards provided a local touch. Resembling a catcher's chest protector, this corrugated steel vest (known as a frottoir or ``rubboard'') is a musical instrument, played by strumming a metal bottle opener over the washboard surface of the vest.

Among the funkiest crafts was the steel art of Keith Miller and Kathryn Arnett. Galvanized metal tables, mirrors, and wall plaques made by these New Mexico artisans looked like playful extraterrestrial creatures composed of bolts, faucet handles, and cut sheet metal.

The Congo Square crafts area reproduced the African market concept, koindu. Imported traditional and contemporary African crafts were displayed, along with African-influenced crafts made in this country. Bold textiles, such as Mali mud cloths, were knockouts, as were Nigerian wall hangings with stylized animal motifs composed of beadwork framed in shells. Wood sculpture, batiks, dashikis, jewelry, and baskets attracted a brisk business.

In the Louisiana Folk Heritage Village, traditional craftsmen enthusiastically demonstrated their methods. Lionel Key of Baton Rouge, La. ground sassafras leaves with a pecan-wood maul in a hollowed-out cypress trunk. A lemon scent wafted through the air as he produced file, an essential powder used to thicken gumbo.

Huey Dupont from Big Bend, La. combined honeysuckle and blackjack vines with willow sticks gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River to create sinuous tables and chairs. ``I had no training, but whatever we needed - from furniture to toys - we built ourselves,'' Dupont said.

Cajun folk artist Nelson Faucheux put three children through college as a trapper before learning to carve fish out of tupelo wood. ``I'm an old mink man,'' he said, before launching into a spirited account of the biggest catfish he ever hauled in - 113 lbs. - and the 150-pound leviathan that got away. Tales, it seems, loom large on the bayou.

Cypress, a ubiquitous swamp tree, supplies the raw material for numerous Cajun crafts, from lamp bases made of cypress knees to the flat-bottomed canoes.

Lucy Sedotal of Pierre Part, La. demonstrated the traditional technique for rowing a cypress skiff: standing up and facing forward. ``We row forward,'' Ms. Sedotal said, ``because Cajuns like to know where we're going, not where we've been.''

Native Americans at the Festival still practice ancient crafts so as not to forget where they've been. Ray Parfait of Dulac showed palmetto baskets, Spanish moss dolls, and carved wooden birds produced by the Houma tribe.

When they were children, Tom and Liz John learned from their grandparents to weave Coushatta baskets made from long-leaf pine needles and raffia dyed with natural substances like black walnut, berries, and grapes.

Pointing to a tightly woven, intricately stitched basket that took three weeks to make, Mr. John, an ex-Marine, said proudly, ``This is our tradition.''

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