According to legend, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac cursed Detroit because he didn’t listen to a fortuneteller’s warning: “You will found a great city,” she prophesized, “but you will die in ruin unless you regard the Nain Rouge.” When the Nain Rouge, or “red dwarf,” appeared, Cadillac smacked it with a stick, solidifying his demise and dooming Detroit to eternal misfortune.
Every spring equinox since 2010, the Nain Rouge has reemerged to taunt Detroiters and create chaos. On March 24, hundreds journeyed from Cass Corridor to the Masonic Temple in hopes of driving him away for good. Parade goers sport insane costumes, ride on floats, play music or just walk their dogs.
Francis Grunow and Joe Uhl developed the idea for the parade during their last year of law school at Wayne State University.
“We both were talking about New Orleans and about how it was really important for the city post-Katrina to come together and celebrate Mardi Gras, how important that was for New ‘Orleanians’ as a catharsis experience,” Gurnow said. “Detroit at that time, it was 2010, was in a bad way with the recent mayor situation and was looking down the barrel of bankruptcy.”
Detroit needed a Mardi Gras they decided. The legend of the Nain Rouge built the perfect foundation for a parade.
“That was the fun part about creating something that’s rooted in a place’s past that has some kind of relevance,” he said. “As a parade, we used that story (to) create a strawman foil for Detroit.”
Marche du Nain Rouge combines different aspects of holidays and festivals.
“It’s a mashup of Halloween, Burning Man, steampunk and cosplay,” Gurnow said. And, of course, Mardi Gras, offering Detroit artists like Ralph Taylor and Dameon Gabriel a chance to showcase their Creole and New Orleans-inspired work.
Gabriel, a trumpet player and founder of the band, The Gabriel Brass Band has led the Marche du Nain Rouge for several years. The parade mimics that of a jazz funeral: the band, the first line, leads the way, followed by the second line, which consists of everyone else, Gabriel said.
His family’s connection to jazz can be traced back to the genre’s inception in New Orleans. His grandfather, Manny Gabriel, was good friends with Louis Armstrong, he said. The family passed down jazz music for the last six generations and established an unbreakable link between Detroit and New Orleans.
“Manny and my great uncle Percy had a band in Detroit called the Gabriel Brothers Traditional New Orleans Jazz Band. They played New Orleans music for four decades,” Gabriel said.
In addition to New Orleans music, the parade will feature Creole-inspired costume art by Ralph Taylor.
Taylor’s workshop is marked by a magenta door on the corner of East Lafayette and Canton. One step inside and a visitor will tumble into Detroit’s Wonderland.
Feathered headpieces, sequined masks and huge, glittering creatures adorn the walls of the industrial space. Several puppet-like costumes, designed to strap on to the wearer, tower 15 feet tall. Taylor fires one up, a skeleton with rope lights cascading from the top of its skull like hair. It flashes and the mesmerizing light show begins.
Taylor grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. His early exposure to Carnival, an annual celebration known for its remarkable costumes and rambunctious festivities, solidified his desire to be a costume designer, he said.
“I love to see the completion of costumes that I am used to as a tradition from my country, which is the process in which these costumes are made,” Taylor said. Traditionally, the costumes were built through wire sculpting. “It’s a dying art. I’m one of the guys who maintains it.”
Marche du Nain Rouge does not only illuminate the artists who keep New Orleans and Creole traditions thriving in Detroit but encourages Detroiters to exercise their own creativity. People can be themselves or someone else entirely. They can sing, dance, wear crazy outfits and, perhaps most importantly, blame all their problems on that nasty little red dwarf.