Shaka Zulu: Carrying on the Rich Traditions of New Orleans

Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief Data News Weekly

Cultural Warrior

In a time where the city is changing demographically, some things threaten to change what is arguably the most African city in the United States, but people like Shaka Zulu, who is a New Orleans treasure, continues to represent the city and its rich cultural traditions around the world. Recently, he was one of several recipients of the prestigious National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship.

A master of New Orleans Black Masking, drumming, and stilt dancing, Shaka Zulu passes down the traditions as a teacher and culture bearer whose talents are celebrated nationally and internationally.

“One of the things I appreciate about it the opportunity to be on the world stage as it relates to cultural arts because there are a lot of great artists here, it will bring attention to what we do. In many cases some of our best creators must leave to be recognized, but to continue to live here and be part of the culture and to receive this award is an amazing thing, not just for me, but our city,” says Shaka Zulu.

Shaka Zulu is a master of Black Masking suit design, an art form specific to New Orleans, Louisiana, which originated as part of the Indigenous and African culture in the city. The intricate suit-building of the New Orleans Black Masking carnival tradition usually involves sewing and designing for one full year, and are colorfully displayed during Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night, and Super Sunday in New Orleans. In addition to upholding the Black Masking tradition, Zulu is revered as a drummer and stilt dancer, both part of the city’s West African traditions.

Shaka Zulu Receives NEA National Heritage Fellowship (bold)
In its 40th Anniversary of the program the National Endowment for the Arts is continuing its long history of recognizing and honoring our nation’s folk and traditional arts and those who create it. Also, a film celebrating the 2022 class of artists and tradition bearers will premiere in the fall on”

“In their artistic practices, the NEA National Heritage Fellows tell their own stories on their own terms. They pass their skills and knowledge to others through mentorship and teaching,” said National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD. “These honorees are not only sustaining the cultural history of their art form and of their community, but they are also enriching our nation as a whole.”

Each fellowship includes a $25,000 award and all of the recipients will be featured in a film that will premiere in November 2022 on Through the film, viewers will have the opportunity to visit the homes and communities where the fellows live and work, providing a connection to the distinct art forms and traditions these artist’s practice. Stay tuned for more information about the film this fall.

Keeper of the Culture
Shaka’s story begins in New Orleans in 1969, Zulu grew up immersed in African and Caribbean culture by being a part of his father Zohar Israel’s performing arts company, Free Spirit, in New Orleans. He started drumming at an early age and became a master of African and African Diasporic Percussion Instruments, such as the djunjun, djembe, shakare, and congas. Under the masterful tutelage of his father, Zulu, at the age of fifteen, became a skillful and accomplished second generation stilt dancer. In 1995, Zulu and his wife Naimah formed the performing arts company, Zulu Connection, and toured their company of dancers, stilt dancers, and drummers nationally and internationally. Zulu has also toured internationally with NEA Jazz Master Donald Harrison Jr. as a masking performing artist and percussionist in Harrison’s band Congo Nation.

In 1999, he studied under Chief Darryl Montana, son of Chief Tootie Montana (1987 NEA National Heritage Fellow). His talent for impeccable sewing quickly led to his significant stature within the Black Masking tradition. He continues the “downtown” suit-making tradition pioneered by Chief Tootie Montana, distinguished by its three-dimensional or soft-sculpture pieces with sequins, beads, turkey feathers, and a more abstract style. Zulu is now Big Chief of the Golden Feather Hunters established in 2018.

“The thing about preserving our culture and heritage is about respecting those who came before us. The beautiful thing about this award is that it’s focused on many different art forms that I do, the preservation of African Stilt Dancing, the Black Masking Tradition and as a drummer and stage production with Voices of Congo Square, which brings all these things together in a stage play.”

A thought-provoking lecturer on the origin and culture of the Black Masking traditions of New Orleans, Zulu has exhibited his suits both nationally and internationally at museums and festivals. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Zulu lectured and exhibited his suits at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. His 2015 suit was featured in Sounds of the City, an exhibit in Berlin, Germany, featuring the Culture of New Orleans. His suit “Shango” is currently on exhibit in the Netherlands at the Africa Museum.

“When you leave here you realize New Orleans sells to the rest of the world. Sometimes we don’t see the value, which is also African and Caribbean culture. We don’t only have to be performers but to be presenters of our culture and teach others. Also, it is important to think about the economics of our culture and how we can benefit more from what we create.”

The Future of New Orleans Culture
A consummate teacher and culture bearer, Zulu has conducted workshops on masking, drumming, and stilt dancing nationally and internationally. On trips to Tanzania in 2009 and 2019, he engaged with the Masai and Meru communities about the connection between the African and New Orleans African American traditions. It was in Tanzania in 2019 that Zulu beaded his 2019 Suit “The Toucan” with the diligent assistance of the youth in the villages of the Masai and the Meru people.

“Working with Masai youth, I found there were many commonalties culturally. Also, in other places I have been around the world people recognize New Orleans as an international city that is a gumbo of people. This is what makes the city and its people special and influences other parts of the world.”

As part of New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018, Zulu produced New Orleans Voices of Congo Square, a 30-cast member stage production featuring the Black Carnival Traditions of New Orleans, touring the show nationally and internationally, and making a film of the production.

According to Shaka Zulu’s customs and traditions, he has passed down the Black Masking and stilt dancing traditions to his daughter, Sarauniya, who continues these practices.

“What I want to give back culturally is what was given to me, my father was a stilt dancer and musician, my grandpa was a musician, I had great uncles who were in the Black Masking Tradition (Mardi Gras Indians) all that was given to me by way of New Orleans.”

“Even though this award is personal, I am proud to have received it on behalf of the City of New Orleans.”

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