Armand Richard, a soft-spoken but intense man, is the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s Big Shot of 2003. Like many New Orleanians, Richard’s krewe—his Carnival club—is the subject of tremendous devotion and financial expenditure. “At this point, I bleed black and gold,” Richard confesses, citing Zulu’s royal colors. “I don’t mean the Saints colors either!”
The Big Shot of Africa, as is his full title, was a character created for the Zulu Mardi Gras parade during the early 1930s by member Paul E. Johnson. The Big Shot is the funky Beau Brummel of Mardi Gras, the flyest guy to dazzle any eye, the original inventor of bling. The Big Shot’s diamond ring is a crystal doorknob, his derby is studded with jewels, his Cuban cigar is a foot long. The Big Shot’s brilliance is of such magnitude that King Zulu himself has trouble sleeping, worrying that the imperial raiment might appear dull compared to the thaumaturgical threads of the Big Shot.
As he prepared for his triumphant parade through the streets of New Orleans, the Big Shot consented to a brief interview, conducted at a secret location deep in Zululand.
Who is the Big Shot?
The Big Shot is one of the characters of Zulu during the Mardi Gras season. The character functions throughout the year. There are eight characters in Zulu. The number one character is the King, then there’s the Big Shot, the Witch Doctor, the Ambassador, the Mayor, the Governor, the Province Prince and Mr. Big Stuff. The top three characters are the King, the Big Shot and the Witch Doctor.
The King of Zulu is the number one character—the character who receives all the accolades from the city, the state, the Zulu organization, everybody. The Big Shot always attempts to outshine the King. The Big Shot is usually more flamboyant than the King. The Big Shot is usually more outspoken than the King. Every opportunity the Big Shot has, he always tries to outdo the King. That is the role I have assumed. Without any disrespect to the King because the majority of the Big Shots aspire to be King. And I am no different. I will be the King of Zulu.
How does the Big Shot outshine the king?
As far as apparel is concerned. The Big Shot tries to throw bigger parties than the King. The Big Shot tries to dress better than the King. The King, on Mardi Gras Day and for the Zulu Ball, has a big outstanding costume. The Big Shot will attempt to compare himself to the King and have a big costume also. The King always has an entourage. The Big Shot tries to have an entourage also. The King, in the public life, is the spokesman for the club and the number one person besides the President of Zulu. But the Big Shot always tries to get a few words in, if he can. It’s an ongoing thing with the Big Shot trying to outdo the King with parties at Zulu functions within the organization, with the membership.
How does the politics of Zulu work?
The politics of it is that every Mardi Gras season there are different characters and there’s an election within the Zulu organization. The Zulu organization is composed of 375 regular members. Also there are special status members, honorary members and associate members. The voting membership elects the characters. The King is elected by the Zulu members. The Big Shot is elected.
The election for this upcoming 2003 Mardi Gras season was held in May of 2002. I ran for Big Shot as the underdog. I was not the favorite in this race. But, in the end, I won the race by a landslide.
How did you accomplish that?
By giving the membership what they want. The membership loves a personable candidate. They love a candidate who likes to drink along with them, party along with them, just engage in conversation with them. I’m a “people” candidate—I’m a candidate for the members. I think I succeeded with that.
Zulu politics is quite interesting because it’s all a fantasy. But when it comes down to dollars and cents, the dollars and cents are real. Just with my campaign, I spent in excess of $10,000.
That’s not counting anything for the Mardi Gras season—that was just for the campaign to become Big Shot. I’m sure my opponent spent the same.
For the parade, it’s just a little different because you get financial support from your krewe. For my parade, I’m going to have a krewe of 70 members who are charged a fee to ride. Some of your money comes from that. It just depends on what extent you want to go to.
For your krewe, we have a krewe party. We’ve had a Monday night football party. I’ve had a flag raising. I have my own flag. All the Big Shots have a custom made flag. My flag was raised on January 11 at a ceremonious occasion—the Big Shot flag raising party.
What’s the Big Shot flag look like?
It’s the Mardi Gras colors—purple, yellow and green. The center has a “Z” embroidered in the middle with the Big Shot shield. My initials are on it. It’s a flag similar to what the King has—same size, same embroidery. The King has a flag raising and the Big Shot has a flag raising. It’s another excuse to have a party.
You have your own float in the parade.
I have my own float. In the line-up, my float is number one. There’s the King, the Soulful Warriors, the Queen and then the Big Shot. The first numerical float is my float. I am the first character with the exception of the King. But I have a krewe; the King doesn’t have a krewe. I have a krewe of 70 people on my float. It’s called a superfloat.
Describe your costume.
The traditional Big Shot always has on a derby and tails. My costume is extravagant tails and a diamond-studded derby. At the Big Shot gala—mine is at the Radisson, this is when the traditional derby and the crystal doorknob ring from Cleveland Nelson, the Big Shot of 2002, will be passed on to me.
I’ve been in Zulu for 13 years and I’ve ridden with the Soulful Warriors prior to becoming Big Shot. I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to be a character. The characters are not just members anymore—you are elevated to another level once you become a character. One of the slogans Zulu has is “Once a Big Shot, Always a Big Shot.” I’m Big Shot for 2003 but I will always be a Big Shot of Zulu for the rest of my life.
How did you become a member of Zulu?
When I was a kid, I always would see the parade. The number one show for Mardi Gras day, when I was a kid, was the Zulu parade. I could never get a coconut. I could never get up front. Then I heard, through the years, that you never got a coconut unless you knew somebody. If you knew someone on the float—bing!—you got a coconut. I never knew anybody so I never got a coconut. I decided that I ought to join and now I have all the coconuts I want. Thirteen years ago I joined. I waited on the associates’ list for about a year and then I became a regular member. I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I will be a Zulu ’til I die.
We are not just a Mardi Gras organization. We do a lot of things for the community, we make a lot of charitable contributions. I am also chairman of the Zulu Scholarship Foundation and a member of the Zulu Ensemble, which is Zulu’s gospel choir. We sing all over the city and the South. I’m quite involved with Zulu. Not only that, I still have a job. You can really get consumed in Zulu and spend 24 hours of your time dealing with Zulu. But I have to work to present myself as a Big Shot. The traditional big cigar, the ring, the jewelry, the derby, a well-dressed person—that’s the Big Shot.
You act like a Big Shot. You act like you’re the number one person on this earth and no one can dress better than you. No one looks better than you. No one has a better cigar than you—I smoke the Cuban cigars. No one has better jewelry than you. I always have on alligator shoes.
Why is Mardi Gras so important to New Orleans?
My feeling about Mardi Gras is that it’s just the biggest free show in the world. Everybody’s on one accord. Everybody’s partying. Everybody’s having a good time. Everybody’s having fun. That’s what I think about Mardi Gras.
I think Mardi Gras is the epitome of amusement in New Orleans. Not only do you have the parades, the throws, the French Quarter, the drinking, you also have the different Mardi Gras balls with a lot of pomp and circumstance and elaborate costumes and royalty. That’s what I like about Mardi Gras and the Zulu Ball especially, where we present the debutantes to society. This is great.
What message do you wish to convey to your subjects?
My message as Armand Richard the Big Shot—and I’ve been bringing this slogan throughout my campaign—is “I will go the extra mile Big Shot-style.” “Big Shot-style” is a style that doesn’t compare, a style that money can’t buy, a style that no one can rise up to. That’s the message I would like to send out.
What about your real job?
I’m a high school administrator in charge of discipline at an inner city school. My professional career is trying to develop and educate the young minds that we have here, to make these young people viable citizens and positive contributors to the community. That’s what I’m about in the daytime. It’s a challenge.
But just like in Zulu, as far as my reign in Zulu and what I aspire to be, I’m up for the challenge. I tell you what, in my 13 years of being in Zulu, I feel like I have been elevated to celebrity status since I have become Big Shot. I’m enjoying every second of it!
What do you advise your subjects who want to get a Zulu coconut?
I would give them my address but then I know they’d be knocking on my door for it. Tell them to come to the Big Shot float and just yell like hell. Ask for Armand Richard and I’ll see that they get a coconut.
The Zulu Lundi Gras Festival
Remember just a decade ago whenthe Monday before Mardi Gras was kind of a let down after all the parades and hoopla during the weekend? Sure there was always shopping to do, picking up those last minute costume accessories—face paint, fishnet stockings or whatever—and stocking the fridge with goodies. Visitors would roam the Quarter with little aim except to drink too much and endlessly beg for beads from balcony perchers. The majority of kids, out of school for the holiday, were, like most New Orleanians, restless to get the party started.
That all changed in 1993, when the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which, of course, is renowned for its hilariously tongue-in-cheek Carnival parade, debuted its first annual Zulu Lundi Gras Festival. Its mix of hot music from this city’s finest and most spirited musicians, sizzlin’ food, cold libations and the presence of the Zulus themselves all served up along the river in Woldenberg Park kept the roll on and changed the day forevermore.
Like many inspired ideas, the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival came about from a simple conversation. One day during one of the Audubon Institute’s many events at Woldenberg Park, Zulu member George Rainey and the institute’s Karyn Noles-Bewley sat by the river just chatting.
“I asked her, ‘What would happen if Zulu would have its arrival here at the riverfront?’” recalls Rainey, explaining that King Zulu always arrived somewhere by boat. In the early years, the monarch traveled by tugboat docking at the New Basin Canal. When the canal was closed, King Zulu cruised on the Mississippi arriving at the Governor Nicholls Street wharf and later at the foot of Canal Street for a small ceremony and reception.
Noles-Bewley agreed that Rainey’s idea for a grand entrance by King Zulu at the park and a festival on Lundi Gras was an excellent idea. The wheels were put in motion to create what has now become a Mardi Gras tradition.
“We wanted this to be an event that was embraced by all organizations,” remembers Noles-Bewley of the reason she and representatives from Zulu first went before the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Committee for approval and support. “We didn’t want to take away from anything else, like Rex’s arrival at Riverwalk.”
With that aim in mind, it was decided that King Zulu’s arrival at Woldenberg Park would take place at 5 p.m. and that the festival would therefore end before Rex’s docking upriver at 6 p.m. It was also suggested by the Zulu and Rex organizations that the King of Zulu and the King of Carnival could meet—a first in Mardi Gras history. Now, at the conclusion of the festival, the Algiers Brass Band leads a second line made up of the king and queen of Zulu, the characters, and anyone who cares to join and heads up Decatur and out Canal Street towards the Spanish Plaza. Soon thereafter, King Zulu joins Rex at Spanish Plaza.
“I just thought that was just an incredible opportunity,” exclaims Noles-Bewley “and it really symbolized our city coming together to celebrate.”
The meeting of the two sovereigns was just one of many new innovations to the New Orleans Carnival tradition. For the first time, Zulu’s notable “characters,” those outrageous revelers who enliven the organization’s parade, donned their costumes prior to Mardi Gras Day. With the characters on display, festivals-goers really get to check out the likes of the Big Shot with his trademark cigar, derby and cane and the flashy Mr. Big Stuff (named after vocalist Jean Knight’s hit) as they strut their stuff behind the Pin Stripe Brass Band at intervals throughout the day.
“The characters uplifted the arrival of the king,” says Rainey of the showcasing of the seven Zulu notables, which also include the “heads of state”—the Governor, Mayor, Province Prince, and Ambassador. A crowd favorite is the Witch Doctor, a man known for his voodoo spirit that bestows good weather upon the city for Carnival Day.
While King Zulu and his queen don’t arrive until evening, the festival is an all day, family affair with music on two stages kicking off at an early 10 a.m. Many of the artists like saxophonist James Rivers and vocalist Charmaine Neville have performed at the festival since its inception.
“What makes it fun is the people,” says Neville, who includes classics like “Mardi Gras Mambo” and a lyrically revised “King of the Mardi Gras” in her set. “I mean it’s the day before the big throw down and you have fun with people from every corner of the world. I think it’s impressive the way a social and pleasure club like Zulu can change the way so many people think about each other. They make people know that we’re all the same.
“Usually on Lundi Gras I’d just be working,” continues Neville remembering her pre-festival years. “It wasn’t the same. You were just working for people who didn’t give a damn. They didn’t even know you were there. With the folks out there, it’s a real family thing because a lot of people bring their kids and their grandparents. It’s not just a bunch of drunk screaming people that just want to lift their t-shirts.”
Neville and her band participate at the Kids’ Stage, a venue established in 2001 in response to the increasing numbers of young people attending the event. Neville’s ensemble then moves over to the Aquarium of America’s Stage from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., where it welcomes the arrival of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter carrying the King and Queen of Zulu.
Besides being one great party, the event has allowed both New Orleanians and visitors to get further acquainted with the Zulu organization that, beyond its parade and festival, is active year-round in civic and educational endeavors.
“It’s definitely brought Zulu more into the mainstream of New Orleans,” says Nick Harris, who manages public relations for the club. “We’re really the only the major Carnival group in the city that is doing a major festival like this.”
There is a touch of a proud father in the voice of George Rainey when he speaks about the Zulu Lundi Gras festival that is his brainchild. His continued enthusiasm is evident in his advice to all: “Come out and you’ll have the day of your life.”