a subterranean guide to New Orleans music
|Mardi Gras in New Orleans:|
Running the Streets of the Crescent City
By John Sinclair
Dig this, from the front page of the daily Times-Picayune, under the banner headline "Million Had A Good Time":
"The tragedy of the 1976 Mardi Gras, in this our Bicentennial year, is that 209 million of the 210 million Americans were not here to celebrate it with us. For the one million of us who were here, we know we had a good time."
It is this officially-endorsed atmosphere of Anything Goes on Mardi Gras which has long set the stage for all kinds of unofficial shenanigans in the streets on Shrove Tuesday, including the lewdest and most bawdy hi-jinks by the high-stepping sports of the lower classes, who have always seized upon this day of merriment for the upper class as their opportunity to act out their own public fantasies in similar measure. The aristocratic organizers of the formal festivities graciously give their social inferiors the freedom to cavort as they wish, for to attempt to do otherwise would cause them to curtail their own fun, and they enjoy themselves much too much to do that.
Consequently there is much more to Mardi Gras than meets the untrained eye, including a long tradition of drunken violence, gang fights, and general devilment which has often threatened (as in the 1850's) to put an end to the whole carnival celebration. At the same time there is the splendid musical tradition of Mardi Gras, from the well-known parade-band jazz of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, the Onward, Olympia, and Excelsior Brass Bands and many others, to the primitive call-and-response chants of the Wild Indians and the barrelhouse, goodtime R&B of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Doctor John.
It is at this point, dear readers, that your humble correspondent presumes to step into the picture. A follower of the music of New Orleans since I first heard Fats Domino in 1954, at the age of 13, and an amateur ethno-musicologist to boot, I had been hot on the trail of the Mardi Gras sound ever since the good Doctor John (Mac Rebennack) had regaled me with tales of the Wild Indians, Professor Longhair and the Zulu Parade back in '72. My nose was opened up wider early in 1974, when a chance meeting in Los Angeles with French record producer Phillippe Rault exposed me to the Wild Magnolias and the whole cultural reality of the Wild Indians.
M. Rault had just been in the studio with the Magnolias, cutting their first record — and the first album-length recording by any Mardi Gras Indian tribe -- with a mind-boggling collection of New Orleans musicians, including the legendary Snooks Eaglin on wah-wah guitar, jazz saxophonist Earl Turbinton on reeds, his brother Willie Tee on keyboards and arrangements, Julius Farmer on bass, Larry Panna, drums, and Alfred "Uganda" Roberts, congas.
Rault had the master tape with him -- we were sitting around smoking hash at Village Recorders, where Ed Michel was putting together another Gato Barbieri record for ABC/lmpulse and listening to my tapes of the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival on the side -- and as Michel threaded it up on the four-track, Phillippe handed me a large scrapbook filled with material on the Magnolias.
My mind was blown! In the scrapbook were pictures of black men with long braids, dressed in the most beautiful garments of beadwork and feathers, and crowned with these magnificent Indian-styled headdresses made of two- and three-foot-long ostrich plumes dyed to match the rich, brilliant colors of their costumes. The music now blasting through the huge studio monitor system was similarly intense, a series of hypnotic chants on the African call-and-response model which told the story of the yearly Wild Indian ritual and the mighty exploits of the tribe.
This is the missing link, I flashed immediately. This is the music that came before the jazz bands marching back from the funerals, the direct link between African "perambulating chants" and American rhythm & blues dance music. This is where it all came from - where all American popular music, finally, goes back to - and it's still in its purest form, right out there in the streets for people to move to.
Suddenly what I was seeing and hearing meshed together in my mind with what Dr. John had said about the Wild Indians and the whole Mardi Gras trip, and it all began to fit together. These Indians were Black men, working-class denizens of the Third, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Thirteenth Wards in New Orleans, where blood and culture lines go directly back to slavery, to the West Indies and to Africa itself, and where religion is still a vital part of everyday life. Not religion in the European sense, but magic - voodoo, ancestor worship, praise songs directed to specific gods, communal dancing and singing to drums and tambourines - haints and spells, incense and herbs, black cat bones and mojo toofs, all grounded in the ancient religious belief that the gods are everywhere, control every aspect of daily life, and must be appeased through any and every possible means.
In this culture, which thrives in New Orleans and other areas of the south - not to mention many northern cities - to this day, the official Christian religious trappings have been adopted as an overlay, providing a cover for the practice of the ancient African religions and their modern-day Afro-American permutations. Thus Mardi Gras, for example, means little more to New Orleans Blacks than an opportunity to practice the ancient rituals in public for once, utilizing the anything-goes atmosphere created by the ruling Christians to indulge their own barely-suppressed version of reality for one day each year.
While Mardi Gras is simply the day before Lent in the white Christian community — the occasion for one final fling before saying "farewell to the flesh" (the literal translation of Carnival) for forty days -- the holiday has a wider and deeper resonance with respect to the former Africans in North America and throughout the New World. For Afro-Americans and native "Americans" alike - the people who were here before the whites arrived - the beginning of Lent could serve as a metaphor for the imposition of Christianity itself, that institution which rails against the pleasures of flesh all year round, reduces all gods to one omnipotent, omniscient father-figure, and insists that work, rather than good clean fun, is the only path to eternal salvation.
In this context the violent extremes of the New World carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Rio de Janeiro, for instance, or the intensity of the Black Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, should be easy to understand. All the pent-up energy and desire to be one's self which must be ruthlessly suppressed for survival's sake the rest of the year is unleashed during Carnival season, and the pagan rites - dating back directly to the communal cultures of West Africa and South and Central America - can safely be practiced in the streets.
Where the old religion still lives, as in New Orleans, it exists in greatly permutated form, having assimilated into itself elements of the whites' religious trips, components of a number of African and New World sects, and the customs and practices of modern-day urban ghetto life. It can be seen in its pure state only on Mardi Gras Day and on St. Joseph's Night a couple of weeks later, when the Indians parade in the streets in full costume, and even then the African ritual has been altered to reflect the American experience. (continued)
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