Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

This weekend there has been a 'festival of New Orleans' in London, with Dr John playing for free at the O2 arena in Greenwich. Unfortunately I haven't managed to get down there, but I have been reading up on the history of New Orleans, and specifically the Mardi Gras carnival.

The Mardi Gras carnival in its modern form is the result of ‘a process of creolization, a melding of cultural identities as strands of cultural material fused into a synthesis of something new’. In the eighteenth century, ‘Carnival began more as a closed operation than as a public festival’ with masqued balls in the houses of the wealthy preceding Lent. These later developed into formal processions under the auspices of the aristocracy.

Alongside this was another tradition of public dancing amongst enslaved Africans from the early days of 18th century New Orleans: ‘The plantation economy soon faltered, and land­owners could not generate enough food to feed the enslaved Africans who worked their holdings. The rulers allowed slaves to trade food they grew, hides or meat they hunted, and vegetables and fruit they cultivated at a makeshift Sunday marketplace on the grassy public commons behind the ramparts of the town. The place became known as Place du Congo, or the Congo plains. Today, a portion of the area is contained in Louis Armstrong Park along Rampart Street, just outside the French Quarter… on Sunday afternoons at the Place du Congo market a tradition of public dancing mushroomed. As many as five hundred dancers at a time formed concentric rings, moving in counterclockwise circles, their hand­clapping and feet-shuffling forming cross rhythms to music made on conga drums, tom-toms, panpipes, and calabashes… Costuming was fundamental to African ritual. Mask making as a specific tribal custom was lost in the Middle Passage, but the idea of mask-and-dance in a spiritual continuum lived on in a city where gentry flocked to see the exotic spectacles. Nowhere else in the South were slaves given such freedom of expres­sion in music and dance. The Africans sometimes dressed as Indians, "ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts," wearing "fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirt­ing about the performers' legs and arms."'

'The patrician love of masked balls and the high place of costumery in the danced religions of the Afri­can ritual psyche spilled into the streets as Carnival traditions unfolded. "Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, black and white, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolical, horrible, strange masks and disguises," reflected a visi­tor at the 1835 celebration. "Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes' heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches ... in rich profusion up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing ... as they wend their reckless way."'
In the 1850s, carnival began to become more formalised: ‘The Mistick Krewe of Comus, formed in 1857, gave Mardi Gras its formal patina. People wearing costumes and parading in streets had been around for years when along came Comus, a group of elite young white men…This was the first group to form an elite and secretive men's society, which came to be known as a krewe. "Their lavish balls could be attended only by those fortunate enough to have received invitations, but their proces­sions of floats, lights, and music could be viewed by anyone who cared to, and vast crowds lined the city's streets," observes the artist and Mardi Gras chronicler Henri Schindler… Float designs were steeped in themes of antiquity and Renaissance drama. With the artistry of early Carnival rose the aspirations of a former slaveholding class that wedded its eco­nomic recovery to an idea of neoclassical glory. Mardi Gras became a time when "deities of forgotten pan­theons and the splendors of long-vanished courts are restored for a season, summoned into being from the gilded vaults of the old city's memory”’.
Black Krewes

Later other parts of New Orleans society began to form their own krewes: ‘The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the leading black krewe, was formed in 1909 (its parade began seven years later). Zulu today is the longest and most imaginatively designed black parade, a rudder of Carnival. Black men in blackface, wearing grass skirts, hand out gilded coconuts from floats that roll down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras morning, preceding the Krewe of Rex . But where the Rex ball is a pinnacle in the calendar of the white elite, with invitations difficult to come by even for those with personal ties to members, the Zulu ball is a sprawling affair with upwards of ten thousand people, many of them bringing food to be laid out on a vast array of tables. Zulu is where privilege melds with the masses: just about anyone can go to the ball for the price of a ticket'.

'Zulu began as a double satire. A group of black longshoremen engaged in a parody of the Zulu tribe in South Africa and used their African costumes in a further burlesque of Rex and the would-be royalty of white folk. If Rex had a royal robe and scepter, King Zulu wore a grass skirt and waved a ham bone. Out of this smirking parody evolved an organization rooted in the working and middle classes. Louis Armstrong rode as an exultant king of Zulu in 1949. Today the city's leading politicians, including several dozen whites, are members of Zulu… The Zulu parade has been and still is one of Mardi Gras's most loved traditions'.

'The Zulu krewe consists of a non traditional hierarchy of characters. It has a king but no nobles per se, and one character, the "Big Shot of Africa: outshines the king (the term outshine was used in earlier days and meant to look better than someone else in competition). A Zulu member created the Big Shot character in the 1930s. He is the man behind the throne; no one can see the king without seeing the Big Shot first. Among the other Zulu characters, the Witch Doctor was one of the first. He prayed to the gods for good health for the members and the king, as well as for good weather and safety. The Ambassador, Governor, and Mayor were characters created in the 1970s, representing heads of government… Also in the 1970s, James I. Russell and Sonny Jim Poole created the "Mr. Big Stuff" char­acter, who tries to outshine the Big Shot. The idea came from the 1970 recording "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight'.

'Another side to black Carnival is a symbolic revolt against the overlords of history. In 1883 or there­abouts, a group of black day laborers began masking as Indians. This tradition harked back to the slave dances at Congo Square, where Indians watched Africans who sometimes dressed as Indians. Indians had harbored runaway slaves in Louisiana territory. Unlike Natives in many other parts of the South, where Indians were driven out by force, the Choctaws in New Orleans melted into the local popu­lation, many of them marrying blacks. Traveling Wild West shows of the 1880s had a hold on the black population. But with sinuous street dances and improvisational rhythms pounded out on hand percussion instruments, the Mardi Gras Indians cast a spiritual searchlight onto the African past. Embracing the persona of the Indian, the black tribes paid the supreme compliment to another race by adapting their trappings as spirit figures. The black Indians used the ritual stage of Carnival to parade as rebellious warriors for a day, stopping in bars, sometimes fighting, releas­ing passions otherwise bottled up by the dally grind of poverty and race’
'The trancelike possessions of African Americans in the vernacular churches found an analogue in the dancing of the black Indians, according to the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., founder of Guardians of the Flame. "Trance: remarked the chief, a folk philosopher who worked for many years as a waiter and enjoyed the works of Albert Camus, "I can see winos, anybody, you can get to a certain point and go into a trance. To the casual observer they look like they're just jumping up and down, but in reality they're in a world by them­selves, rhythmically." Some call it a trance; others say "with the spirit." The term "possessed" is another way of saying "fugue state." The sudden force of energy rushes into the body, throwing it out of control, into gyrations, while the mind - or spirit- spins into another zone.’

Gay Krewes

'The French Quarter is the Babylonian essence of New Orleans, a riot of erotica during the big day, with many people walking around semi-nude, nearly nude, or nude-but-painted…The high point of Mardi Gras in the Quarter is the midday drag-queen beauty contest on a stage at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann Streets. The dazzling costumes, many with rainbow feathers, dripping light, bespeak a tradition of the day without ­closets stretching back well before the rise of gay lib­eration in the 1970s. Gay Mardi Gras grew more formal in the 1950s with the Krewe of Yuga, which sati­rized the traditional Mardi Gras balls. The police raided Yuga's first ball in 1958, and ninety-six members had their names printed in the newspaper in an arrest sweep'.

'Undeterred, the Krewe of Petronius formed in 1961, marking a move by gay men into the Carnival mainstream. By the early 1980s some fifteen gay krewes were holding balls with elab­orate floor shows. The AIDS epidemic, however, cut deeply into the community, and by 1999 only five krewes were active, including the Lords of Leather and the first black gay krewe, Mwindo'.

Source: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA: Annals of a Queen by Jason Berry in Carnival, ed. by Barbara Mauldin, 2004, Thames & Hudson. Pictures: top: a 19th century Mardi Gras scene, sourced from a history of the Rex parade; bottom, Mardi Gras 2007 by 'Sir: Poseyal Squire Poet'


New Orleans Ladder said...

What a great piece!
This is why I always enjoy reading another take and history of Mardi Gras, the way writers like you over time paint yet other layers onto the story.

Thank you so much.
Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Transpontine said...

Thanks Editilla, I would love to make it over to New Orleans some day.

bob said...

Great post. The 02 event was rather a damp squib, imho. You can't do carnival in an enclosed corporate space.

Ian said...

What an interesting article! The etching in particular may show the legendary 'Jocomo' (the clown cap figure) and may well correspond to the Big Shot mentioned in your article. The connection is extremely important because Jocomo is the main character in one of the biggest hit songs of all time. The meaning of the words of this song (Iko Iko) have eluded fans for over 50 years but all of them have now been identified (see Iko Iko Wikipedia by googling it) except for Jocomo. You may have provided the last missing historic link. I realize you got the etching from the Rex website, but do you by any chance know what its origin is?