Dre Benjamin and the NolaCal Second Liners bring communal passion to Sacramento Mardi Gras

Dre Benjamin, out front, and the NolaCal Second Liners, lead the Krewes and Kings of Queens Parade in Oak Park on Feb. 3. (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

A storm-swept parade dancer will continue sharing his culture at Old Sac’s big celebration on Feb. 24

By Scott Thomas Anderson

Festive feathers of a madcap umbrella jump with the snare beats as Dre Benjamin comes dancing along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Clouds gather overhead.

Benjamin keeps stepping for Broadway, swinging his sunshade with one hand and pumping his pluming feather-fan with the other: Both pieces of parade swag are intrinsic to the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, the neighborhood that raised him.

The Bigger Than Us Arts band is following. Their street jazz atomizes the air of Oak Park, filling it with tuba claps and drum strikes and a lone trombone roaring muscularly through the morning. And between the musicians and Benjamin are the NolaCal Second Liners, a partying group of parade fanatics that The Big Easy native formed in 2019.

Benjamin is the grand marshal of this February event. The Second Liners seem to feed off his energy, shuffling and sashaying as they go, making a willful spectacle of delight in their traditional digs for a New Orleans social aid and pleasure club. The way it’s done in Louisiana, clubs like this lead a parade as its “main line.” They’re followed immediately by a brass band; and behind those performers are “the second line,” meaning the people from all the surrounding neighborhoods.

This particular gathering is the Krews and Kings of Queens Parade. It’s put on by another son of New Orleans who lives in Sacramento, Joseph Thomas. It was Thomas who asked Benjamin to be the grand marshal, requesting that he kick everything off by giving a customary blessing to the umbrellas that people from the streets are carrying as they march.

“Dre is what is called an elder, a man well-encased with the culture of Louisiana-style Mardi Gras and the history,” Thomas stresses. “And, in order for you to have a successful Mardi Gras parade, it has got to be blessed by an elder. And what comes with that is wisdom and understanding.”

Benjamin continues on with his unbridled energy, leading a line of marchers from South Sacramento and beyond, everyone swaying and side-stepping past a mural of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as locals cheer from sidewalks and take pictures from rooftops. Moments like this are what Benjamin envisioned when he and his wife, Karin, formed the NolaCal Second Liners. 

Steeped in Seventh Ward life, Benjamin spent decades absorbing the power of street jazz and parade dancing into every fiber of his being. In 2005, he lost his home — and everything he owned — during Hurricane Katrina. That forced Benjamin to move to California and rebuild his life virtually from scratch. He says that Karin, who he met here, became a major force in helping him start over.

Several years ago, as some of Benjamin’s fellow New Orleans expats — personalities like Thomas, Preston Marx and the famous “Louisiana Sue” Ramon — started coming together to throw big Mardi Gras events in Sacramento, Benjamin and Karin founded the NolaCal Second Liners to be part of the action. They based the premise of the club on the motto “bringing communities together.” Similar to the bonding ethos of New Orleans parade culture, the NolaCal Second Liners want to lead dancing through the Capital City so that people from all neighborhoods and walks of life can come together to enjoy shared company by celebrating a musical spirit that moves them.

Now, with the main Sacramento Mardi Gras celebration coming this Saturday, Benjamin is looking back on how it all happened.

“I’ve been second-lining since I could walk,” Benjamin reflects. “The passion I’ve felt for it — the culture of it — I wanted to try to see if I could do it here, because it brings community together. … Doing second-lining, it’s a joyous strut. So, every individual has their own strut. You can do whatever you want to do when it comes to second-lining. There are no rules. It’s however you want to express your joy.”

The storm that blew a Gentilly guy from one river city to another 

Karin and Dre Benjamin at Mardi Gras festivities in Downtown Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of NolaCal Second Liners)

Benjamin grew up in a section of New Orleans called Gentilly, a diverse, storied enclave between Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John. He remembers years of grabbing meals there at the since shuttered McKenzie’s Bakery, or wandering toward the draping moss of City Park, or seeing what was cooking in the historic Black neighborhood of Tremé. He watched one of his brothers become a pool hall hustler at a young age, though Benjamin found his own trajectory through working as a longshoreman at Mississippi’s greatest river port. He did that job for 20 years, buying a house on his beloved streets of Gentilly.

But then came a storm that some predicted would kill the sinking city that’s been refusing to yield to the elements for 300 years.

“When Katrina hit, they said ‘mandatory evacuation,’ so I left — which, I don’t usually leave — but I did then, and I drove to Houston,” Benjamin recalls. “I left my home, left my everything. Usually, with hurricanes, you’d go away for a couple of days, let it subside, and then go back home. But Katrina just flooded my whole home. I had 8-to-9-feet of water in my house. It was destroyed. I had to tear it down.”

Benjamin says he was soon caught up in the well-documented home insurance debacle that financially ruined thousands of New Orleanians after Katrina. Two of Benjamin’s sisters, who owned some businesses in California, offered him a job and place to stay if he moved out here. He said he appreciated the support. One night, at the Blue Note lounge in Milpitas, he struck up a conversation with Karin and one of her friends. Benjamin wanted to dance to the music that was playing. Of the two ladies, only Karin was game to cut up the rug .

“That’s all it took was one dance,” Karin reflects 19 years later. “We’ve been together ever since.”

The couple moved to Auburn in 2013, so they could help support Karin’s aging parents. Benjamin became a public bus driver, striking up friendships all over town. These days, walking into the Club Car with him is akin to being cited with an Auburn celebrity. Four years ago, Benjamin heard that the local blues singer, Dana Moret, was bringing a New Orleans brass band out to Rocklin’s Quarry Park for an event. He decided to drop by with his second line umbrella. Benjamin was ready to dance to street jazz of his past. It was a part of his life that he’d really been missing.

“With second-lining in New Orleans, you could start a in one part of the city, and as you go through the neighborhoods, people hear the music, and they’ll stop what they’re doing and come out and second-line with you,” he observes. “So, now it goes from five people to forty. It’s part of the culture. Everyone just joins in. By the time you’re at the end, you’re at 400 or 500 people.”

When Moret saw Benjamin rolling up with his authentic Seventh Ward party gear, she asked if he would lead her second line.

“That was the first time I was able to my thing here,” he emphasizes.

Ameena Azaboor, right, is the Queen of the Krewe of Gumbo this year for Sacramento Mardi Gras. She and Shalandra Holland, left, are both part of the NolaCal Second Liners. (Photo courtesy of NolaCal Second Liners)

Connections that Benjamin made that day ultimately led him to meet Ramon, who’d begun putting on both the annual Sacramento Mardi Gras Festival and the annual Crawfish and Catfish Festival. Ramon has an uncanny ability to find other New Orleanians and Louisianans living around Sacramento and then get them to be part of her authentic Gulf Coast bashes for the masses.

“We’re all like water, we seek our own level,” Ramon says of teaming up with people like Benjamin and Thomas, as well as the numerous chefs that cook at her festivals. “If there’s somebody around, we’re gonna find them. And, if you talk Mardi Gras or Crawfish, they’ll find me. It’s because we have the heart and the soul to want to do this, and to share it.”

Along those lines, Ramon asked Benjamin and Karin to be at the forefront of her second lining. They did, and as more folks gravitated toward their fun style of parading, the couple formed the NolaCal Second Liners.

“We decided on the colors of black and gold, because that’s the colors of the New Orleans Saints,” Karin notes, adding that she and the group’s vice president Missy Holmes have been crafting all their umbrellas and marshal sashes. “It’s really just getting people together. We just want people to come and have a good time.”

The NolaCal Second Liners now have between 20 to 25 unofficial members. Two people who have had a great time since joining are married couple Deanna and Alex Fenner.

“Karin and Mr. Dre are just amazing people, and the vibe felt just fabulous,” says Deanna. “We did [a second line] at a wedding not too long ago in South Sac, which was fun. The husband was originally from Louisiana, so the wife surprised him … It’s the comradery, the people and that everyone’s just so happy to be part of it. What I’ve learned from Dre is that, in New Orleans, it’s about being good old-fashioned people who take care of each other. There’s a strong family bond to it.”

The coming Mardi Gras mayhem

Joseph Thomas, who threw the Krewes of Kings and Queens Parade, parties in Old Sacramento on Fat Tuesday. (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

It’s a cool, overcast morning as Deanna Fenner shows up in her second liner outfit to the Pony Express monument in Old Sacramento. She’s ready to party with Thomas, Ramon and a host of young people dressed like different iterations of Barbie and Ken. This is another early Mardi Gras celebration meant to preview the big upcoming gala on Saturday Feb. 24, which has a Barbie theme and features dozens of chefs, food trucks and live bands.

“Even if it drizzles, we’ve got you covered under the freeway,” Ramon says, adding that attendees who dress up as Barbie or Ken gain free entrance. “We’ve got the best parade going on, and we’re honoring Greta Gerwig, a Sacramentan who made it really big. Let’s give her a nod — so we’re turning Old Sacramento up to its peak.”

Sign-ups for Saturday’s Mardi Gras parade start at 10 a.m. at the dock in front of the Delta King and then move to the California State Railroad Museum at noon. The parade begins at 1 p.m. on Front Street before turning onto Second Street.

Separate from that, there will be a crowning of the King and Queen of the Krewe of Gumbo on the waterfront at 11 a.m., and then a reenactment of the ‘Ken’s Beach Off’ scene from “Barbie,” complete with singers and dancers. At 11:30 a.m., Ramon will give “Barbie” a symbolic Oscar on behalf of the Mardi Gras party. The ticked garden party gets going at 11 a.m. under the freeway in Old Town, with food, cocktails and live music performances happening into the evening.

“Louisiana Sue” Ramon

Thomas, whose family is part of one of the most-renowned Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans — the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club — says that it’s important to remember that the tradition is about strengthening broad community relationships, which can benefit Sacramento in the same ways it benefits the Big Easy.

“Not only does it create an economic stimulus for the city has a whole, but we’ve been able to have an educational component along with that, too,” Thomas says. “Now we’re teaching the kids the art of fashion, the art of entertainment, the art of music — the art of jazz music! That’s all the fabric of the Louisiana-style Mardi Gras.”

And an essential part of that fabric this year will be Benjamin and the NolaCal Second Liners. They’ll be part of the parade through Old Sac in their black and gold uniforms. For Benjamin, the group’s name, combined with its elaborate outfits, represent a fusion of two coastlines coming together.

“The Saints are not just a football team in New Orleans, they’re part of our culture — win or lose, they’re just part of the culture,” he attests. “It’s like Bourbon Street or Café De Mond, it’s part of who we are. So, that’s our colors. But I got the name NoloCal being that my wife is from California, and most of the people that I’m going to introduce to this are going to be Californians. So, I wanted to give everybody their due billing.”

As Benjamin preps for the big Mardi Gras weekend, he hopes there is a certain indomitable vibe that comes through his group’s dancing.

“In New Orleans, we’re resilient,” he muses. “You’re not going to stop us from doing what we need to do. We’re going to live. We’re going love. We’re going to laugh. It’s what I love to do, and now I can do it here in California.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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