Throw Me Some Culture!
The three evolutionary strains of Carnival in Louisiana
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
At its simplest, Carnival is folks standing on a curb catching beads. At its most sociologically introspective, Carnival is a season with deep cultural roots. Examine Carnival in Louisiana, and you will see a celebration with three different strains of evolution. To explain, here are some questions and answers:
The feathery headdresses of the Mardi Gras Indians borrow more from the American Plains Indians than the Choctaws.
What are the three strains of Carnival in Louisiana?
One is the New Orleans-style Carnival, which is by far the largest; the second is the Acadian Courier du Mardi Gras; and the third is the Mardi Gras Indians.
What are the characteristics of the New Orleans-style Carnival?
Just about everywhere in the state –– or the continent –– where there is a Mardi Gras celebration, it borrows from the New Orleans style. Characteristics include floats with masked riders throwing trinkets; King Cakes; use of the colors purple, green and gold; use of the term “krewe”; and organizations having kings or queens. All those are influenced by the Mardi Gras celebration that evolved in New Orleans.
Where, outside the New Orleans area, are New Orleans-style carnivals held in Louisiana?
Some of the older celebrations are in Shreveport and New Roads. Baton Rouge, Lafayette and –– increasingly –– Lake Charles have also evolved parade scenes, as have many smaller towns including Bogalusa. In some places, however, the parades are on the weekend before Mardi Gras rather than the Tuesday itself. Of course, any place where King Cakes are cut borrows from New Orleans, and that could be throughout the season.
What are the characteristics of the Cajun Courier du Mardi Gras?
Through the centuries, there have been many examples of visitation traditions as a form of celebration –– and not just at Carnival time. The early Mummers in Philadelphia, for example, would wear costumes and visit from house to house on New Year’s Day. Courier de Mardi Gras is a visitation tradition in which masked horseback riders, often followed by a bandwagon, make their “run” by going from house to house to “beg” for items used in preparing a gumbo.
Where is the Courier celebrated?
Obviously in Cajun Country, particularly west of the Atchafalaya in the prairie areas around Mamou and Eunice.
What are the roots of those two carnivals?
Although Mardi Gras is a French name and New Orleans was a French town, Carnival as it evolved was largely Anglo-Saxon in influence (including the creation of the contrived word “krewe”). With lineage that traces back to Mobile, Ala., and further back to the Mummers in Philadelphia, what evolved in New Orleans is the classic American carnival, which, like many things American, has a touch of European influence. The Courier has roots that trace more directly back to medieval France.
You have mentioned the Mummers in talking about those two strains –– how did they affect Carnival?
Evidence is that the Mummers influenced those who founded the Mobile Mardi Gras. (Indeed, the leader was from near the Pennsylvania city.) The Mobile group was known as the Cowbellians, and in their initial march on New Year’s 1831, they made stops, including at the home of the mayor, so there was a trace of the visitation tradition, too. Years later, in 1857, some former Mobile Cowbellians would be instrumental in founding the Mistick Krewe of Comus in New Orleans. Besides creating the word “krewe” and introducing the float to the New Orleans Carnival, Comus would originate the city’s parading tradition from which all else evolved. Early Philadelphia mummery was a distant influence on what evolved in New Orleans, yet because of its European roots (primarily Scandinavian), mummery also had characteristics of the celebration held in Cajun country.
How about the Mardi Gras Indians? Is that a strain into itself?
Yes, a case could be made that this is Louisiana’s third strain. The tradition, celebrated among black males in New Orleans, is a fusion of American Indian culture and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The feathery Indian costumes borrow not from the native Choctaws but from American Plains Indians.
How about the music of these three carnivals?
Each have rich contributions: In New Orleans there are mostly rhythm and blues standards (the classic being “Go to the Mardi Gras” sung by Bogalusa native Professor Longhair), and in Acadiana there are, of course, Cajun songs, with the anthem being “La Chanson de Mardi Gras.” The Mardi Gras Indians’ chants combine R & B with a Caribbean beat, the best-known example being “Iko, Iko.”
Is there a difference in the way New Orleans-style carnivals are celebrated outside of New Orleans?
In many areas the “krewes” are really social service organizations that quite often use the parade as a fundraiser.
Some areas are more lax in the quality of masking and the originality of float-building. Common to most any place, though, is throwing stuff.
Are the various strains limited by geography and race?
Not necessarily. For example, even though Lafayette is the epicenter of Cajun Country, the parades held there are more in keeping with the traditional New Orleans style. In New Orleans, the predominantly black Zulu parade is also more in keeping with the New Orleans style and not with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
Does any other state have so many different strains of Carnival?
No, most usually have a watered-down knockoff of the New Orleans version with no real history.
What does all this prove?
It proves what a culturally rich state Louisiana is.