Anyone who visits New Orleans during Carnival season will have a plethora of stories to pack their bags with and bring home. But for us locals who have been immersed in the traditional beads, booze, debauchery, king cake and Mardi Gras Mambo, our tales of Carnival experiences are unique. They’re similar to the tourists’ stories, but they’re shaped by a tighter connection to the city, its history and traditions. Our stories offer a glimpse into the rich culture of New Orleans that visitors may miss.
New Orleans’ musical community is by no means immune to Carnival’s magic. We asked a handful about their most memorable Mardi Gras experiences.
James Andrews, jazz musician
When I was a kid, I watched Tootie Montana coming out with his white Indian suit on. I was at Orleans and Claiborne out under the bridge. It was so spectacular that I always wanted to be a Mardi Gras Indian from that day on, finding some red beans and rice under the Claiborne bridge—just that whole Claiborne experience!
Chaz Leary, washboard player
Last Mardi Gras I had a fake nose ring, fake tattoo. I got a realistic stuffed dog, and was dragging it around on a leash with me. People thought it was a real dog, coming up to me saying, “You shouldn’t do that to that dog!” People from Uptown don’t get it! A dog even came up to me and sniffed the fake dog’s butt. That was the best part!
Margie Perez, singer
My first Mardi Gras, I was following the Krewe du Jieux through the French Quarter and we made a stop. Because this was my first Mardi Gras, I didn’t understand the stopping so I stayed a little longer, and when I walked out they were already gone. I asked somebody where the parade went, and they directed me to Decatur Street so I started running, and I caught up with the parade. I realized it wasn’t the same one, but I thought, “Well, it’s a parade anyway.” They were playing the song “My Little Margie” and I thought, “This is cool. I lost the first parade, and found this other parade, and they’re playing my song!” It was the St. Ann Parade, and the Storyville Stompers were the band. My friend Hart McNee was in the band; turns out he was calling my name to get my attention, and the band thought he was saying “Play Margie!” so that’s why they started playing the song! When Hart passed away this past year, we had a second line for him. At one point I was in front of the band and we were trying to decide which way we were going. Somebody said, “Hey Margie!”—about to say which way do we go?—and the band started playing “My Little Margie”! It was bizarre that it happened twice!
Joe Krown, keyboards
I don’t have a whole bunch of Mardi Gras stories. I live in Uptown on a parade route, so we watch several parades right from our porch. Most of the time I’m home catching beads right near my house and policing my property. I’ve been in the Quarter on Mardi Gras Day several times and outside of people watching, nothing too eventful occurred. One year we played at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street on Mardi Gras Day and the power went out. Again, nothing eventful really happened. Everyone behaved relatively cool.
By far my favorite Mardi Gras memory was in 1994 when George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars played the Wednesday and Thursday nights before Mardi Gras at Tipitina’s. Both shows lasted five-plus hours and had us walking out of there with the sun coming up. They were truly transcendental experiences that really opened my mind to the force and possibilities of a live music experience. Somehow, I managed to get my camera in and out of there in one piece! Will someone please start bringing back the national acts of that caliber back during Mardi Gras?!
Chris Lee, Supagroup
In 2007 I almost didn’t make Mardi Gras. I was in New York City attending classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and my class show was on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras. I finished the performance knowing that outside was a hellacious ice storm. Instead of going to JFK, where I knew JetBlue had a horrible record during weather, I checked online and sure enough, my flight was canceled. I re-scheduled for Thursday to go to Houston, and then bought a ticket from Houston to New Orleans. I was up all night, literally, and at 5:15 a.m. catch 32 the J train to JFK. Once at the airport, it’s total mayhem. People are everywhere, all freaking out. I stand in the lines inside for a while, and worried I would miss my flight, get in the Skycap line outside in the 2-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The line was still long, but least I could see my goal. I, of course, am wearing a jacket appropriate to New Orleans cold, but not New York’s, so it’s a long cold wait. I give my bag to the guy outside and he informs me that my flight to Houston has been canceled. Jesus! Back to the inside line for another hour and a half. The lady who finally waits on me tells me there are no open seats and no flights, but she can book me next Wednesday. “Doesn’t Fat Tuesday mean anything to you?” I scream. The next counter lady over looked like she’d been crying. After I applied a little sweet talk and a dollop of sympathy, she put me at the top of the standby list. At the gate, hours later, all the standbys glare at each other. When the plane finally boards, there are eight slots available. About five of them go to Marva Wright and her family (at least I think it was her) because when she sweet-talked the gate guy, it made my earlier sympathy ploy seem amateurish at best. So then there were three slots left and about 15 people clamoring for them. Miraculously, I’m next! I’m going to make Mardi Gras! I walk on the plane and the last two seats go to Eli Manning and Johnny Damon. When I arrive in New Orleans, my brother Benji has been waiting for me two hours and is pissed. But at least I didn’t miss Mardi Gras.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Mardi Gras icon
I was a grand marshal for Muses, and that really a great one. I rode in the parade and I was in a convertible, and “Carnival Time” and “Mardi Gras Strut” played the whole time. That was really exciting. The Krewe du Vieux made me King of Krewe du Vieux and that was great. I said I was the best king that was for that year. And I’ve even done some stuff with that thing on Monday night, Orpheus. I have a couple of my Mardi Gras cups from Krewe du Vieux, and last year I did something with Grela and I have a couple from there, too. Last year I marched with the Red Beans and Rice. That’s a new group of people that’s just getting started, and they officially made me grand marshal all the time. I’m the official grand marshal. We walked in the Treme on the Monday before Mardi Gras, and that was a great experience. I’m going to march again this year, and they’re working on my outfit. It’s made out of red beans and rice. It’s very interesting. It’s really a great feeling to be in a parade. It’s unbelievable, and it’s almost unexplainable.
Alfred Doucette, Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras when Antoinette K-Doe passed—I wasn’t masking that year, so I had to go home and put an Indian suit on and sing for Antoinette K-Doe. This was last year. She died on Mardi Gras. That was my most memorable experience.
Gal Holiday, honky-tonk singer
We live on the corner of Gov. Nicholls and Decatur. We have the balcony that wraps around, so we’ve been throwing a party for years. Adults and kids are welcome. Two years ago, we dragged out the Marshall Half Stack—a giant, loud amplifier, usually used for rock bands. We had a whole bunch of guitar players and bass players, and they would jam out for about five minutes, act like rock stars and walk away. When some of the walking krewes would come through Decatur, they would play along with the music, but on rock guitars. It was very funny—and loud!
I’ve walked parades all my life, as a tuba player for many years with the Olympia Brass Band, Tuxedo Brass Band. I’m an old school guy from way back. The first time I was able to be on top of a float was with one of the carnival krewes playing on top. It was a wonderful experience to see what goes on from that angle, but it was the coldest carnival we ever had back in the ’80s. It was freezing! It was terrible, but we made it!
Just seeing how people hustle for beads and getting the attention of the people, being able to get close to them, a special person wanting something and they’re hollering your name ‘BIG AL, THROW ME SOMETHING!’ It’s a wonderful feeling throwing something to some special person. You’re secured up there just by a rope; hope for the best and make sure you got your peepee bucket with you!”
Derrick Moss, the Soul Rebels’ drummer
In 2006, the first Mardi Gras after Katrina, I was surprised at how many people were out there and we still had a good time. Somewhere around Canal Street, I looked up and they had a film crew filming us in the parade. Come to find out it was Spike Lee and his film crew, and that footage wound up in the movie When the Levee Broke on the HBO special. We’re in it! We’re in the movie.
Trixie Minx, burlesque dancer
I am what most people casually refer to as a “bead whore”. I dress up in bright costumes, ridiculous wigs, do high kicks, shout, and on occasion reach over small children at parades. My first Zulu was no exception. I was determined to get a coconut, especially since the parade was so freaking early! I was dressed as a pink poodle and spastically running along the floats. One rider said he would give me a pair of panties if I put them on. I said I would put them on if I got a coconut. He threw me a flimsy yellow rayon thing that could barely pass for panties (especially by burlesque standards) which I quickly put over my head like a mask. Though it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, I got the coconut!
I typically like to be pregnant during Mardi Gras. Not really pregnant, but I wear a fake belly under my costume and everyone seems to have something to say. One woman told me, “It’s okay if you drink as long as it’s beer” and another asked, “Are you trying to make a statement about abortion?” But my favorite was a guy who said, “I have one of those, too!” and showed me his beer belly. It’s also really funny when you run into people you haven’t seen in a few months and they aren’t quite sure if you are really pregnant.
On Mardi Gras, I normally do a group costume with a bunch of friends. We’ve been the cast of Apocalypto, death metal Vikings, and most recently the greatest acts n Vegas. It really doesn’t get better than a bunch of wonderful people coming together to be totally ridiculous for the pure pleasure of it.