Grabbed by the Hand

Sudan co-founder Gerald Emile at Kenneth Dyke's funeral
Sudan co-founder Gerald Emile at Kenneth Dyke's funeral; 2015; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni

The Chosen Few came from how I was raised in the Seventh Ward. I was born in 1966—one of 17 kids. One brother, James Lane, got killed four years ago. I’m next to him; he’s two years older than me. My daddy was a truck driver, and my mom stayed at home on Annette Street. After my dad retired, our parents ran a little corner bar with a juke box called Lucky Star. On a Friday, they made sure all the children ate and home safe, and they went out. If you were looking for your mama or your daddy, you know where they was—at our bar on St. Bernard and North Villere, or down the street at the Castle Club.

When I was five, I was running behind my brothers and got hit by a car. They didn’t want me to go with them, but I went anyway, and they were trying to duck me by a little park in the French Quarters. In the years afterwards, I stayed with Tamborine and Fan. If it weren’t for Gerald Emile, Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, and the guys with Sudan, I probably wouldn't be here right now. 

Gerald Emile ran the day camp for Tamborine and Fan. He worked as a waiter in the Quarter, and then as a supervisor—like if they need waiters, he was the man you had to go through to get on that job. He grabbed my hand because my best friend, Matthew “T-Low” Boutte, and I stayed in trouble. Matthew is the Big Queen of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, Kim Boutte’s brother. I called Kim my daughter. People ask, “She older than you, so how you gonna be her daddy?!” Since we were ten years old, I called all of Matthew’s brothers and sisters my children because we were best friends. In their house, that’s how I played with their mama. I said, “That’s my old lady.”

In the day camp, they told us: “Sing, dance and clap your hands.” When you heard the bass drum and the snare drum playing, it was time for all of us to come together. Everybody had a chance to beat that bass drum. Tanio Hingle and Kerry Hunter from the New Birth Brass Band learned to play the drums at the day camp. Gerald sang the song “Journey Right On.” He never masked Indian in his life, but when he came to practice, shit, they were waiting on him to start singing. He took his money and put T-Low and me in a private school on Rampart Street in the Quarters. He used to come get me to bring me to school. If I did good, he took me out to eat on the weekend. In parades, he turned his hat upside down—that hat will sit on his head and won’t fall. I’m not perfect like him, but that’s my daddy so when I get a chance to do my thing in the parade, I dance with that hat on my head. 

Gerald Emile at Kenneth Dyke's funeral
Gerald Emile at Kenneth Dyke's funeral; 2015; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


After school, we played ball at Hunter’s Field, and Kim ran track. Bernard Robertson and Adrian “Coach Teedy” Gaddies were our coaches. At other parks, if the other team heard the bass drum playing them tambourines and us kids singing, they knew we were coming. It was wartime! No other team had that but Tamborine and Fan. When I was 15 years old, I couldn’t play no more park ball, so to keep me out of trouble, I started coaching with Teedy. I coached for 30 years. After we left Tamborine and Fan, we built a program at Harden Park. I started getting a group of kids where I lived at in the Eighth Ward and walked them over. We raised our kids playing ball. I bought them juices when we got to the park. After football practice, Coach Teedy dropped them off home in the van. After I started coaching, I started calling football and baseball games with Bernard. We were referees.

If you played sports, you were going to be in Tamborine and Fan’s second line, the Bucketmen. When I got 17 years old, the majority of the guys from the Bucketmen formed the club of Sudan. I was the youngest member. I was there day one in 1983. T-Low held the banner for us. People asked, “How you get to hold the banner?” Through me. By me being in the club, that’s how T-Low got the banner. The first few years of the club, if we were short three or four hundred dollars, Gerald put up the money. We paraded through the neighborhood and broke up at my mom’s bar.

On December the 9th of 1987, T-Low got killed in the Florida Project. We were 21 years old. My son was only a few weeks old. It’s been 33 years because my son just made 33. They had to knock on my door and were scared to tell us. My best friend got killed. Your heart drops, then you’ve got this newborn baby. Matt is always going to be in my heart. For my 50th birthday, I had got a cake made with a picture of us at his brother’s wedding when we were around 13 years old. Kim named her son, Matt-Matt, after him, and her son got killed, too, in 2006. On August 11, 2020, Kim was killed by a stray bullet when she was leaving a repast in New Orleans East. It was a cycle. Three went down the same way in the streets of New Orleans. Kim was a hard pill. That was real hard. Now, if you were at the service, you seen me. I was a pallbearer and wore a lime green parade outfit.

There’s too much going on with this generation. You have to be very careful of your surroundings; you have to pay attention. I do my lil work in the morning, and by late afternoon I’m home because I’ve got a 19-month-old baby I’m raising—my great-nephew. Children didn’t ask to come here. He was living with my mama, and she’s 86 years old. My mama can’t watch no babies. She still thinks she can do that, but she’s too old. Now he lives with my ex-wife, and I take care of him, too. I’ll pay half and she’ll pay half, and that’s how we pay for him to go to nursery. She goes to work, and I go to work painting houses. Before it gets dark, I’m inside.

The Chosen Few

I paraded with Sudan 26 years straight and kept coaching ball. I met a police officer named Thomas Keelen because he coached, too. He didn’t grow up in Tamborine and Fan but was interested in joining the club. In the late 1980s, I told him when we were having meetings, and invited him to come and listen to get to understanding how we ran a parade, and what the budget was. About 12 years ago, Thomas, his brother Teddy, and some other members and I broke off from Sudan. We started the Chosen Few. 

Thomas Keelen (center), President of the Chosen Few
Thomas Keelen (center), President of the Chosen Few; 2017; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


When we were with Sudan, we all had baskets, but with Chosen Few, we only make one basket and one umbrella. We focus on the fans that complement the colors for the two divisions. One year, a division wore lime green, and the other wore peach. It makes for a colorful parade and trims costs. Teddy Keelen designs the streamers, and then we’ll put our tables together and everyone makes their own stuff.

When we first began, we paraded with a couple of clubs until we could get our own date. Any band we get, they have to play traditional jazz. That fast beat? We can hear a little bit of that, but strictly traditional. The last two years, we had the Big 6. We tell them, “You ain’t gonna play what the crowd want to hear because they’re not paying. We’re paying.”  Somebody might say, “Oh, play ‘Dirty Drawers!’” We don’t want to hear that!

Terry James honors Dom Spencer
Terry James honors Dom Spencer; 2017; by and courtesy of MJ Mastorgiovanni

The last time we paraded, we had our own date, but we couldn’t get a Sunday so went on a Saturday. We started from Bayou St. John and broke up at Armstrong Park. We didn’t want to break up at a bar. At the park, when the band plays the last song, everybody knows it’s over. We don’t want to have too many stops because that’s time you lose on the street. At the end, you see a lot of clubs be pushing to make it to the end of their route in the four hours, and we want to be able to enjoy ourselves after all the effort.

Through the whole parade, I release white doves. I rent them for the day, and they know how to fly back home. One time I built a birdcage to put them in. At the beginning, I let a dove go for a club member, Don Spencer, who collapsed during one of our parades. We didn’t know what happened. He went down and never came back. The parade kept going, and we were so busy worrying about him, it was hard. After the parade was over, all of us went to the hospital. He was on a machine for a few days before he died. I let another dove where he collapsed.

When we had the stop by my parents’ house, I let doves go for my brother, my daddy, and my grandmother who lived across the street.

We were a week before the parade when corona came, and the city shut it down. A week. We had our little ball, and that was it. One of our club members, Aaron Duffy, worked in the hospital and died from corona early on. During that time, they weren’t protecting hospital workers, and that’s where he contracted it. A week before, all us were together at the bar. The next week, they say he was in the hospital fighting for his life.


Interview conducted by Rachel Breunlin of the Neighborhood Story Project.