Marche du Nain Rouge Returns

For the second year in a row… residents will take to the streets of Midtown in an effort to rid Detroit of a demon which folklore says has plagued the city for centuries. WDET’s Rob St. Mary reports.

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“Please allow me to introduce myself…”

One of the best known songs of the Rolling Stones highlights the exploits the Prince of Darkness. Over six-minutes, the Devil credits himself with various deeds throughout history. But would you believe that the many dark times and events in Detroit’s history have been caused by a similar character?

Please allow me introduce the imp known as the Nain Rouge…

"The mythology behind the Nain Rouge goes back to the First Nations that were here and there was an oral history of this red devil who would appear as the precursor or harbinger of bad things to come.”

That’s Detroiter Joe Uhl. He says it’s been written in the folklore of the city that soon after Cadillac came ashore and founded Detroit in 1701, he crossed paths with the Nain Rouge and was never the same again.

“Since that time there have been many recordings either oral recordings or written recordings of sightings of the Nain Rouge before all the big catastrophes… or what we consider the big catastrophes of Detroit.”

And Uhl says those sightings occurred before the great fire of 1805, the uprisings of 1943 and 1967 and even an ice storm in the early 1970s.

Uhl says in 2006 he attended the first Mardi Gras held after Hurricane Katrina.

“I was mesmerized that they had this moment – the very first crew in New Orleans – where the entire city could come out… there was very little tourists at the time… and it was like a moment of catharsis where the whole city could come, kind of lift their middle finger at the world around them and have a celebration where there was no discussion of politics, there’s not discussion of economy, sociology, whatever… it was just a party. And I said, you know it’s a shame that a city like Detroit and New Orleans with their historical similarities… that we don’t have something similar… the community can come together once a year and have a carnival like experience.”

When Uhl returned to Detroit he met up with his friend Francis Gurnow who had been researching folklore in the city. The pair stumbled upon the fact that over a hundred years ago there were parades that took place in Detroit to drive out a spirit which people believed plagued the city and was responsible for catastrophic events – the Nain Rouge.

In 2010, the pair posted an event on social media sites calling for the locals to dress up in costume, paint their faces or wear masks, march through the streets of midtown and destroy an effigy of the red devil. Last March, about 300 people showed up.

“(power tool sounds)”

Last week in an Eastern Market building, a team of people worked on a chariot – a small, non-motorized float made on the frames of old bikes and shopping carts for this weekend’s march. One of them is Erin Ellis. She says last year’s march was kind of underground… but this year’s event has the opportunity to become a great tradition for Detroit.

“It was very unsanctioned and I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect at that time and it was really… people came in dress and costume and people who were there were really excited and so here were are, a year later, a lot bigger and with a lot more hopefulness for the community to turn out and hear about it before hand.”

Peter Van Dyke is the director of the 2011 edition of the Marche du Nain Rouge. He says this year’s event will be bigger but the community spirit at its core is always present.

“Just recently I had a belly dancer e-mail me and say that she wants to belly dance at the march… and I said, sure… come on… we’ll figure out where to put you. So, it really is a community focused event and it’s made possible by the community and the support has been amazing.”

Van Dyke says after marching through midtown, the event will wind up in a festival at Cass Park across from the Masonic Temple. Participants will hear several bands… while local food and drink will be available.

Amy Kaherl is a chariot builder who is taking part in the march. She says symbolically ridding Detroit of the Nain Rouge is part of a larger philosophical idea for her.

"What kind of new excitement can be bring into the next season of this Detroit rebuilding and reimagining and if you can re-imagine a shopping cart I think you can help re-imagine what city business could look like or re-imagine what an abandoned space could look like in five years.”

With its festive atmosphere and the desire for people to dress up… some envision a time where the Marche du Nain Rouge could become Detroit’s answer to New Orleans traditional Mardi Gras events. Either way, co-creator Joe Uhl says as long as it retains the community spirit… he’s more than happy to just watch just where the Marche marches off to in the future.

“In five or ten years I’d like to be at the end of the event watching the Nain Rouge get expelled once again from the city with a smile on my face realizing that as new generations come into the city and new people take interest in the city… the parade takes on significantly new meanings to new people and new generations and I’d love to be a part of that evolution and just watch that happen.”

The 2011 edition of the Marche du Nain Rouge steps off at one o’clock Sunday afternoon at the corner of Third and Forest in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood. Organizers say men, women and children of all ages are welcome to take part in the festivities. But you’re warned to dress in disguise so when the Nain returns next year he won’t track you down and personally cause mischief in your life.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

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