Mardi Gras, to say the least, presents a wild flood of sensory input. The varied sources of stimuli include garish floats, exotic and erotic costumes, over-indulgence of all sorts, rituals and ritual objects, the omnipresent “Carnival colors” of green, purple and gold, and much, much more. And amidst all this commotion, one especially rich component is music.
Live music is an integral part of the festivities, and there is also a special assortment of Mardi Gras songs which serve as unifying, fun-for-all anthems. Such fun-for-all also offers a confusing flip side, though, in that Mardi Gras can be quite overwhelming—particularly for out-of-town visitors, who may well feel that the celebration (if not New Orleans in general) presents a baffling overload of strange new customs and culture. The following few words on the music of Mardi Gras—with emphasis on selective musical high points of this year’s event—may help make the mayhem a bit less confusing.
Although Mardi Gras itself refers to one specific day, the “Fat” Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday, the Mardi Gras season gears up right after the Christmas holidays. Its onslaught is announced by the media blitz reappearance of several perennially-favorite songs. These numbers—most notably Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Big Chief,” Stop Incorporated’s “Second Line,” Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time,” the Hawkettes’ “Mardi Gras Mambo” and the Olympia Brass Band’s “It Ain’t My Fault”—are suddenly heard everywhere. Not only are they restocked on area jukeboxes and then selected constantly, but they’re also played so frequently on local radio that simply spinning the dial one is apt to catch one of the songs in simultaneous progress on virtually every station, regardless of format. Local television gets into the spirit, too, especially via advertising, as everyone from used car dealers to aluminum siding salesmen and seafood dealers offer Mardi Gras specials with Professor Longhair wailing in the background. As anticipation mounts and the city’s mood grows increasingly silly, these anthemic songs fill the air even more frequently, blasting out from the doorways of bars, blaring out from car radios and filling the streets with rising excitement.
The songs have also been anthologized, along with other tunes of equal importance, on the excellent album “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” available at most local record stores. Three of the album’s songs—the previously mentioned “Big Chief” and “New Suit” and “Handa Wanda” by the Wild Magnolias—trace their roots back to one of Louisiana’s most striking folk music traditions, the annual parades of the Mardi Gras Indians. Divided into “tribes,” these are social spiritual groups of black men who parade the streets each Fat Tuesday dressed in elaborate hand-made costumes which fancifully depict Native Americans. (Our cover shows George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry in full Indian dress on Mardi Gras.) They are accompanied by throngs of followers who dance, chant and sing, and they beat a variety of hand-held percussion instruments. Their passionate, hypnotic style and Afro-Caribbean rhythms are among the most fascinating aspects of Mardi Gras music and should not be missed.
Some caution and street-sense are advised, though. Most Indian activity takes place on the back streets of rather tough, inner-city neighborhoods. What’s more, certain tribes are hyper-sensitive to perceived exploitation by professional photographers, so the shooting of pictures—especially film or video—may be quite forcefully discouraged. With these warnings in mind, look for the Mardi Gras Indians on North Claiborne Avenue between Orleans and St. Bernard Avenue, in the vicinity of Washington and Loyola, near Jackson and LaSalle, in the side streets of the Treme district, and on and around Tchoupitoulas Street above Napoleon.
The Indians’ music has also been captured on vinyl, most authentically on the recently released “The Golden Eagles—Live in Concert” (Rounder Records) as well as on “The Wild Magnolias” and “They Call Us Wild” (Polydor Records) and “The Wild Tchoupitoulas” (Island Records). These last three albums are studio recordings that place the Indians’ chants and drumming in a somewhat commercial setting: they were released back in the ‘70s, and while possibly difficult to find, the effort would be well worthwhile.
MARCHING BANDS AND “HALF-FAST” RHYTHMS
Another musical attraction of Mardi Gras is the wealth of fine marching bands that can be heard in the 40-plus parades which roll during Carnival season. Each parade features several groups, and in addition to such local favorites as the outfit from St. Augustine High School or the Pinstripe Brass Band, there is also the occasional opportunity to catch area celebrities like clarinetist Pete Fountain, who takes to the streets with his Half-Fast Marching Club. Additional information on Fountain’s exact route is available from his club at the Hilton Hotel, 523-4374, while general parade schedules are available all over town (we list all the parades in February in this issue of OffBeat)
After viewing a few parades and observing all the time, effort and energy that goes into them, the scope of Mardi Gras will start to become apparent. This is no casual, generic weekend gathering; it’s a major expression of a unique regional culture.
Mardi Gras is also a very special season in New Orleans’ nightspots. At Tipitina’s—named for yet another song by the late Professor Longhair, one of the city’s leading cultural heroes—talent buyer Sonny Schneidau has been booking the same essential lineup for the past five or six years. “We’ll kick off our Carnival lineup on Thursday, February 2nd with the Nighthawks, a great blues-rock band from Washington, D.C.,” Schneidau said. “Then on Friday the 3rd we’ll have Dr. John the Night Tripper, who of course is a local legend. “Out-of-towners may only know him for his hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” but he’s also a great New Orleans-style pianist, singer and songwriter. He and his band will be in costume and so will most of the audience.
By Saturday, things really start to get loose all over town. Tip’s will present the Neville Brothers (New Orleans’ foremost musical family) that night and Sunday. Art Neville was one of the Hawkettes, Aaron had a big hit with “Tell It Like It Is” (heard recently in the movie “The Big Easy”), and all four brothers have played important roles in the New Orleans music scene. The brothers have been cult heroes in the music business for years and now listeners all over the world are being Neville-ized. On Monday, Tipitina’s will host The Radiators, the city’s funkiest, most popular rock band playing their signature “Fishhead Music.” Schneidau acknowledges that many people will just stay up all night and go straight to the parades after Monday night’s partying. “On Tuesday night, Tip’s will finish the season out with a bang with Marcia Ball, one of our favorite acts from Austin. Marcia’s a fantastic rhythm & blues singer and pianist,” said Schneidau. “And after that,” he concludes, “everyone in town’s going to pass out for a few days.”
A quick sampling of other club schedules includes Jimmy’s, presenting Cyril Neville (one of the brothers) with his band The Uptown All-Stars, Art Neville and Charmaine Neville (daughter of Charles of the brothers), all on Thursday, February 2nd; the Radiators on the 3rd; high-energy rockers Dash Rip Rock on Saturday and Sunday; and the Nighthawks on Monday the 6th, with a special late-night set by Cyril Neville.
The Maple Leaf, on Oak Street uptown, will kick off with zydeco by Rockin’ Dopsie on Friday, Marcia Ball on Saturday and Sunday, and blues guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington on Mardi Gras night. Snug Harbor presents the great Charmaine Neville on Thursday, Saturday and Monday nights; the Latin jazz-fusion of Santiago on Friday; and rhythm & blues ace Deacon John on Sunday. Closing out the season on Mardi Gras night is the innovative pairing of two of the city’s best bassists, George Porter, Jr. and George French.
Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday) is also becoming a popular event among New Orleanians. The Lundi Gras celebration was a tradition that started in the 19th century and which has been revived in the Spanish Plaza at the Riverwalk alongside the Mississippi River. The mayor welcomes Rex, the King of Carnival, as he steps off a boat that docks at Spanish Plaza. The tradition calls for the mayor to turn over the city to Rex at that moment for the entire holiday of Mardi Gras. A fireworks show begins at 6:25 and free performances by Casa Samba at 6:30 and the Neville Brothers at 8:00 cap off the celebration.
Since New Orleans is one of the world’s great musical cities, this is of course only a very slim sampling. For more comprehensive happenings during February, look for the listings section at the back of OffBeat.
CAJUN COUNTRY MARDI GRAS
For those who want a totally different experience or for those who have no taste for the rowdy crowds of New Orleans, the celebration in southwest Louisiana’s nearby Cajun country is highly recommended. Parades are also staged, but here on horseback, led by a flag-waving capitan. Riders are elaborately costumed, many wearing tall pointed hats with a distinctively medieval look.
The parades run the back roads outside such towns as Eunice, Mamou, Basile and others, and stop at successive farmhouses to solicit culinary contributions (known as charité in French) that will help make the large communal pot of gumbo. Sometimes the contribution is a sack of rice or cold beer for the ever-thirsty riders. More often, though, it’s a chicken, which the riders chase, capture and dispatch. If this old custom seems cruel, keep in mind that these are country people who routinely butcher their own meat. The majority of households welcome the riders, but an occasional homeowner may stand in his yard with a shotgun and tell the capitan to wave his troupe on.
Most of these parades include live music, provided by a Cajun or zydeco band set up on the back of a flat-bed truck. (The term “Cajun music,” incidentally, usually denotes white players, while “zydeco” refers to the dance music of the region’s black, French-speaking population.) The bands play continuously, but work hardest at charité stops when those revelers who aren’t chasing chickens dance furiously instead. Perhaps the best-known parade, or “run” as they are known, is held in Mamou on Mardi Gras Day, but this small town gets so saturated with reporters and camera crews that the atmosphere almost rivals New Orleans’ craziness. Other, less-crowded runs will be held in Eunice and Basile on Mardi Gras Day and in Church Point on Sunday February 5th. There is also a children’s run in Basile on Sunday. But perhaps the best way to observe and learn about this region’s Mardi Gras customs is to go to the Liberty Theatre in Eunice on Monday night, for a program called “Cajun Country Mardi Gras: Variety Within a Culture.” For further information, call (318) 457-7389.
There will also be plenty of great music in the area’s clubs and dance halls. At Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge (318-332-4648), the Carnival lineup includes the renowned Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa on February 3rd; accordionist Octa Clark and the Dixie Ramblers on Saturday, February 4th; Filé on Sunday February 5th; and Cankton Express on Monday and Fat Tuesday. Randol’s in Lafayette (318-981-7080) presents Joe Douglas on February 3rd, Jambalaya on February 4th, Les Freres Machete on February 5th, Nouveau Coeur on February 6th and Nous Autres on February 7th. Belizaire’s in Crowley (318-788- 2501) hosts a Cajun lineup through the weekend, with Johnny Sonnier on Friday, the Church Point Playboys on Saturday, None Allie Young on Sunday, D.L. Menard and Blackie Forestier on Monday, and the Waterhole Jammers on Mardi Gras night.
Mulate’s, Randol’s and Belizaire’s are restaurants as well as dance halls and the music ends comparatively early (Mulate’s also has a location in Baton Rouge on Bluebonnet Road just off the interstate, 767-4794). For late night zydeco dancing, Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas (318-942- 9980) presents Ann Goodly on February 4th and Boozoo Chavis on February 6th, while Richard’s (pronounced REE-shard’s) in Lawtell features John Delafose on February 4th and 6th and Boozoo Chavis on Lundi Gras (Mardi Gras Eve).