Sunday, March 20, 2011

Out and About: Marche du Nain Rouge- 2011

Mac and I in front of the Detroit Masonic Temple. Say hi to Mac everyone! (Ladies, he's single!) (Al Bogdan)

What do the ghost of Antoine la Mothe du Cadillac, a velociraptor, a brigade of men dressed as the wives of automobile moguls, vikings manning a flamethrower, and a handful of local steampunks have in common? They were all at this year's Marche du Nain Rouge in the heart of Detroit, Michigan and they celebrated in a way that only Detroiters can. There were over a thousand revelers in this year's march, from people manning chariots (modded bicycles or scooters), to hundreds of costumed revelers, to families or couples looking for a fun afternoon out.

Want to find out about more kookiness or why I'm wearing red paint on my face again? Read on!

A fools and mummers procession- 19th century

History
Le Nain Rouge is an old urban legend of Detroit, dating back to 1701 when Antoine la Mothe du Cadillac founded the city as a French colony and encountered the malevolent Nain. Instead of appeasing the beast, as a fortuneteller urged, he hit the Nain sharply with his cane and soon found himself financially ruined. Since then, the Nain has appeared before disastrous or grim occasions in the city of Detroit, such as ice storms, blackouts, and executions. The best way to rid yourself of the Nain and his doom are to either A. appease him or B. SWEEP THE BUGGER OUT OF TOWN! So during Marche du Nain Rouge, residents and friends of Detroit gather in costume (so the Nain doesn't know who they are and can't hurt them) and lead a procession to chase the Nain to the center of town (in our case, Cass Park), where he's banished and burned in effigy.

The Marche is a direct descendant of European mumming traditions, which often occurred during the solstices or equinoxes (in this case, Spring in the Northern hemisphere begins tomorrow) in masks and impromptu costumes. Mumming processions are community events and bring together all walks of life to celebrate local pride and solidarity.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Detroit Party Marching Band. (Al Bogdan)

The Spirit of a Community
Marche du Nain Rouge is no exception. It's no secret that the city of Detroit and Michigan as a whole is going through a lot of hard times, political mismanagement, and urban strife- but it's events like the Marche that show that A. People life in Detroit, B. People are proud of Detroit and want it to survive, and C. Everyone is welcome to take part. It's events like these (and the Tweed Ride in Fall- a 20mile bicycle ride around the historic places of Detroit in period or mock Victorian dress) that show that Detroit isn't the dying industrial hulk the media thinks it is. Sure, the population isn't as dense as it was in the 19th and 20th century, but the community is tight-knit and well-meaning. I'm not a Detroit resident, and I felt right at home.

What does this have to do with steampunk? There were several in attendance at the Marche. One of the biggest pasttimes of the event is the spirit of invention and improvisation. Floats and vehicles (called chariots) are scrouged and decorated with pieces of scrap or unwanted materials. A lot of costumes are made in a similar manner. Which is why local steampunks felt and looked so at home amongst this homemade mob. Not only that, but Detroit is one of the most steampunk cities ever. In the 19th century it was laid out and designed to be a paradigm of modern city planning and aesthetics, an embrace of old-world style with new world possibilities. What the 1820s planners didn't take into account was the 1950s invention of the modern suburb, racial tension, and the fall of the auto industry. Still, Detroit is a strange mix of old-fashioned opulence and decaying antique with brand new steel and glass. We could learn a lesson from it.

Just one of the steampunks patrolling the Marche (Al Bogdan)

So what was it like?
Mac and I met the mob at the 3rd Street Bar along the infamous "Cass Corridor" which used to be a very rundown part of town (and many outside of Detroit think still is) but is now populated by students and young, hip professionals. We both wore costume pieces from out of our closets; Mac in parts of his military uniform and a bowler with a bandit's mask, and myself in parts of mine with a few bots of my casual wardrobe mixed in. I painted my mask on. Typically people wear black and red- so the company takes on a very grim, but vibrant look.

Gathered around the lot I saw people dressed clowns, pirates, men in drag, legions of demons, imps, and lesser hobgoblins, or folks who just decided to throw on a crazy hat, wig, or mask. Period costumes mingled with plaid shirts or painted suits. Some people dressed as odes to their own city, most notably a fellow encased in a papier mache replica of the famous Joe Louis fist sculpture. Another fellow painted head to toe in silver ran around (wearing only a towel) as the 'spirit of Detroit'... he gets serious kudos...

A marcher dressed as the sculpture of boxer Joe Louis' fist from downtown Detroit (Al Bogdan)

Even without mentioning our corrupt government (don't worry, it was skewered thoroughly in the opening ceremony) a lot of the costumes had a political bend. A group of people dressed with cardboard models of abandoned houses on their heads- symbolizing the many parts of the city in idle, unwanted stagnation. Along the parade route there was also a group of pro-Nain protesters; proof that no matter what the situation, there are going to be people complaining.

There were also chariots- or decorated man-powered vehicles. Bikes were decorated with scrap, wagons were covered in cardboard and sheet metal, and a moving platform manned by vikings had a working flamethrower on it.... not kidding.

Protestors supporting the Nain. *sigh*. (Al Bogdan)

During the opening ceremony, the Ghost of Antoine la Mothe du Cadillac and the mob called out the Nain for doing horrible things to the people and city of Detroit. Five minutes of taunting and threats followed. The Nain explained that he was "the pothole that bends your rim", the "scratch you cannot itch", and the "emergency financial planner". With very little order, the parade was declared underway with a column of over a thousand marchers. The way was led with the Ghost of Cadillac with a little raucous help from the Detroit Party Marching Band.

The Nain appears! GET HIM! (Al Bogdan)

Noise was the name of the game. Chants of "Leave Now Nain!" or "Downtown!" mixed with musical instruments, noisemakers, and ramshorns. Boos were also fairly constant, since the Nain (and his loyal security guard complete with earpiece) were running throughout the crowd only to be met with a barrage of canes and brooms (the traditional Nain-beater of choice for your average Nouvelle-France housewife). Unlike most parades, this was not meant to be a spectator sport. We picked up marchers all along the route and there were very few people just watching the parade- though there were some locals waving from their balconies or businesses. It was a very warm reception from a city where you're advised to be extra-vigilant walking down the street.

Once at Cass park, the mob gathered around to banish the taunting Nain once and for all! With the help of Cadillac (who arrived in... what else.. a cadillac!), the ghost of legendary mayor Coleman Young (played by Coleman Young Jr, a state senator), and the Spirit of Detroit, the crowd banished the Nain in a storm of city pride. Paper effigies of the beast were burned, assuring that he was gone... for another year, at least.  

A view of crowded Cass Park. Let's play spot the bloggers! (Al Bogdan)

There were plenty of food vendors at Cass Park, but Mac and I had a hankering for something in particular: Barbecue. And in Detroit, you can do no better than Slow's... I will have dreams of pulled pork smothered in South Carolina sauce.

So if you find yourself in Detroit in late March, trying joining the pride and innovation of this old French tradition! Just remember, keep a broom and a mask handy in case le Nain Rouge wanders to your town...

Yes, I know I look like Adam Ant. (Al Bogdan)

Links
-Be sure to check out the rest of Al's photos from this afternoon!
-MLive's coverage of the festivities.
-A video of the Marche.

10 comments:

  1. Jeni- Excellent review of the history and the days activities. New info for me! Glad you had such a good time. Thanks- Aunt Kim

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  2. Red and black? That's in my idiom. Nice writeup.

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  3. Can you tell us about Mac's outfit? It immediately reminded me of this old photo I love...
    http://www.old-picture.com/europe/Hammersdorf.htm

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  4. My outfit's a little something I threw together out of things in my closet. The trousers are my uniform pants for an Austrian Hussar's uniform from the mid-to-late 19th century, and the coat is taken roughly from the design of US Army Officer's Coats from the Civil War era; this edition made in velveteen. Hat by Scala, mask by Hammock and Mask at the Michigan Renaissance Festival, insane grin by yours truly.

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  5. That "Adam Ant" look is marvelous!

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  6. wonderful writeup about my hometown!

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  7. Excellent! Both outfits are fantastic...

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  8. This is so interesting!!!! I never knew this about Detroit past & present -- my husband's lived here all his life, and I don't think he's heard about it. He works for WDIV, would you be willing for someone from there to contact you before next year's parade? I've 'liked' your FB page, you can contact me there.

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  9. It was a completely rockin' day.

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  10. I'll have you know, young steam punk, that the only complaining heard that day was the incessant whining and "blame blame blame" of that motley collection of marchers. . .We, the Friends of the Nain Rouge, came out only to support our beloved imp, much maligned over the course of more than three centuries. Our perspective is simple: the dwarf is but a scapegoat for this city's many ills. Don't blame the dwarf!

    The Dwarf was here first!

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