There can be only one king of Carnival. But while Rex reigns supreme on Mardi Gras, his kingdom is peopled with a dizzying array of grassroots Carnival groups marching to the beat of their own drummers.
Sometimes found on the parade routes with official sanction but more often inhabiting the side streets, filling French Quarter blocks or touring neighborhood haunts, these laidback, do-it-yourself groups are a part of Mardi Gras that rarely makes it into the rest of the world’s perception of the city’s most celebrated holiday. After all, it’s hard to make a sound bite or video clip that communicates the spontaneous glee and bonhomie of one of these homemade processions. But to the people who create and participate in them, these parades and marches and gatherings are the heart of their Mardi Gras experience.
“The point is to gather with your friends and festively and colorfully move through the streets to entertain yourself and others,” says Alan Langhoff, who has seen the Krewe of Kosmic Debris he formed in 1977 balloon into a riotous parade of some 200 people. “It comes from this idea of taking it to the streets with some abandon, the basic spirit of participation rather than observation.”
No one has a full tally of these clubs simply because they are often so fluid, their conception usually heralded only within a small group of insiders. Some have truly become Mardi Gras institutions over the years, with their reputations preceding them and hordes of well-wishers and delighted spectators in their wake. Others are practically secrets shared among friends and then unleashed on the public on their self-appointed day during Carnival, playing their part in the unscripted theater of the costumed streets.
There’s Mondo Kayo, something like a Tiki bar, a botanical garden and a soca band all rolled into one and marching to a booming soundtrack of Caribbean music; the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which delivers an early morning wake-up call in the Tremé (see sidebar); Julu, a marching club with a klezmer beat that trails Zulu from Uptown to the French Quarter; Box of Wine, which pays homage to the Roman god of wine along the parade route for the super-sized Krewe of Bacchus; and the Krewe of Joyful Noize, which parades Lundi Gras night with an array of self-styled instruments, including tubas made from drainpipes, saxophones melded with bullhorns and guitar-pedal-accordion contraptions.
The Bass Parade assembles a phalanx of local musicians for a late-night stroll from one downtown club to another while they wail away on bass guitars and there are the Baby Dolls, a group of women strutting through the streets in satin and lace getups, continuing a black female tradition with roots dating back to the early days of jazz. The Krewe du Jieux, an offshoot from the big Krewe du Vieux parade, simultaneously puts on fun public events and seeks to dismantle Jewish stereotypes with outrageous costumes and lampoons, like its “Running of the Jieuxs” frolic down Frenchmen Street. The Krewe of Dreaux celebrates its Gentilly neighborhood with a raucous parade while the 9th Ward Marching Band, a fixture of several major Carnival parades, hosts its own postgraduate version of the marching brass and drum line through its namesake neighborhood.
There are many, many others but one of the most popular is the Society of St. Anne, formed in 1969 by a nucleus of people involved in the local arts scene. On Mardi Gras morning, the group starts out from the Bywater neighborhood and makes its way to the French Quarter, growing from a few dozen initial participants to hundreds as gaggles of friends join up at practically every street corner. Membership is instant and contingent only on being able to find the group and keep up with its free-form pace.
Some of these groups are steeped in history and tradition. The Jefferson City Buzzards, an Uptown-based marching club, was formed in 1890 and has its own clubhouse on Annunciation Street for meetings and parties. The Lyons Carnival Club was formed in 1946 by returning veterans of World War II. And jazz legend Pete Fountain formed his Half-Fast Walking Club in 1961.
Others have taken shape only in the past few years. A few are officially recognized by New Orleans City Hall and hold legal parade permits, but those are rare. Some require dues from their members, while others consider that antithetical in principle and impossible in practice.
No matter their origins or track record, though, these groups all contribute to the rolling fun and color of Mardi Gras. Members across the spectrum of such groups say they take part each year to put their own personal stamp on Carnival.
“Growing up in New Orleans, I basically lived my life from Mardi Gras to Mardi Gras but it was always going to the parades, shouting for beads,” says Michael Massimi, a member of the underground marching group the Royal Revelers of Discordia. “That’s great and I always recommend to my friends who visit that they do that first. But with your own marching group or krewe, you’re being Mardi Gras rather than watching it.”
Seizing the Day
Some groups seem to form practically by accident, such as the Ducks of Dixieland, a group of about 10 friends who roam the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day with papier mâché duck costumes towering over their heads.
“We’ve always liked to costume for Mardi Gras and we wanted to figure out a way to up the ante on what we were doing,” says Phil Martin, who first decided to dress as a duck in 1985. “We certainly didn’t think we’d be ducks every year but the play on words that present themselves were just too tempting.”
The Ducks’ name itself is a pun on the Dukes of Dixieland, a traditional New Orleans jazz band, and each year Martin and his mates choose a new theme for themselves. One year, they dubbed their procession “Duck Pond,” a riff on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and for another Carnival season they modified their costumes to represent famous people who “forgot to duck,” thus meeting uncomfortable fates.
Even with such cues, however, Martin says it was clear onlookers often had no idea what the Ducks of Dixieland were about, so they began carrying banners emblazoned with the Ducks name and their theme title. That offhand decision proved to be a pivotal move, he says, because it gave the group of friends a public identity. People began looking for them each Mardi Gras and eventually the group was invited to parade with the Krewe of Tucks to add some winged whimsy between its floats.
Meanwhile, the pedal-powered Bike-us Krewe can thank the scarcity of parking spots along Mardi Gras parade routes for its conception. Founding member Rob Savoy says one year a group of his friends decided to ride bicycles to the Uptown parades in their costumes.
“So people see us in costumes rolling down the street and they assume we’re a parade and start cheering and yelling for beads, so we just embraced it,” says Savoy.
Each year, friends – and friends of friends – gather in Faubourg St. John early on Mardi Gras morning and cycle along a ceremonial path Uptown to catch Zulu before making their way to the French Quarter for the rest of the day. In 2003, one Bike-us participant designed a coat of arms and it was turned into a flag and stickers to decorate bicycles.
“I guess that’s what made us official, more or less,” says Savoy. “It came down to someone deciding they could go to Kinko’s and get something printed.”
The decision to select annual Bike-us royalty followed suit, including a post-Katrina coronation held on the hood of a flood-ruined Lincoln in Mid-City, and the group’s numbers continue to grow.
“I think that’s one of the great parts of Mardi Gras, the myriad traditions people have for the day, whether it’s been going on for 150 years, 10 years or 10 minutes,” says Savoy. “You build tradition on top of tradition, and these little sidelines of Mardi Gras really make the day yours.”
Often, the traditions of these grassroots groups mirror or at least borrow from some of the most established Carnival rituals. Consider the Royal Revelers of Discordia, a Bywater-based marching club that does not exactly radiate reverence for institutional hallmarks. Their pre-parade parties often resemble witch covens, with themes like “Reign of Terror,” raging bonfires and soundtracks closer to Black Sabbath than “If Ever I Cease to Love.” Yet the formal totems of Mardi Gras still imbue their activities.
“The Epiphany is the big date for us, we don’t really exist as a group until the Epiphany each year,” says Massimi.
At one of a series of parties the group holds between the Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, the official start of Carnival season) and Mardi Gras day itself, a king and queen are chosen using the random selector of plastic babies embedded in King Cakes. These royals don elaborate costumes and can dispense orders to their followers.
“If you pick a king and queen each year, by sheer momentum you have a history,” says Massimi.
Mondo Kayo didn’t start with much pomp but circumstances did conspire to propel the island-themed krewe into the ranks of the most officially credentialed of marching clubs. The group was formed in the early 1980s by the late Chuck Busch, who gathered fellow aficionados of Afro-Caribbean music for Mardi Gras jaunts through the city.
“It was just ice chests and shopping carts to haul around beer and boom boxes at first, but it evolved into car stereos and speakers hooked up to batteries, bigger carts, more volume,” says Mondo Kayo member Marco Rosamarno.
One of the krewe’s early pranks was to steal onto the St. Charles Avenue parade route between Zulu and Rex, strut past the city dignitaries gathered at Gallier Hall and offer a toast “from one banana republic to another,” says fellow member Michael Nelson. While they pulled it off for years, the krewe was eventually challenged on their illicit forays and after some internal debate among members they decided to seek an official permit allowing them on the parade route. Lawyers in the group petitioned the City Council and eventually Mondo Kayo was written into the New Orleans City Charter, adding it to the small clutch of officially recognized marching clubs.
Another group with that status is the Lyons Carnival Club, which was named for the street in the Uptown neighborhood where it was originally formed and, its members hasten to add, has no affiliation with the Lions Club international volunteer organization. But the club does have its roots in civic activism, albeit of a particularly New Orleans stripe. The Lyons are one of a number of neighborhood-based marching clubs that traditionally visit nursing home residents, hospital patients and shut-ins, bringing them a bit of Mardi Gras merriment before the groups head downtown for the big celebration, says longtime member Roch Peterson.
The krewe’s route now follows a meandering path from one Uptown bar to another early on Mardi Gras morning before taking up its official position between Zulu and Rex on St. Charles Avenue. Everywhere its tunic-suited, cape-draped and feather plumed members go, however, they dispense carnations, command kisses from giggling bystanders and guzzle prodigious amounts of booze.
“A big part of the appeal is the interaction with the people and the camaraderie you feel with your fellow members,” says Lyons member Jimmy Ford. “You don’t see a lot of them all year. But then five or six weeks before Mardi Gras, you have all these meetings to organize, which of course are all held at bars, and you reconnect with these guys who come from all walks of life. Guys from all over the world march with us, and from other worlds too.”
While the groups may appear whimsical, their members often say deep social bonds develop with life milestones celebrated together and losses mourned. Both the Society of St. Anne and the Krewe of Kosmic Debris hold ceremonies on the banks of the Mississippi River during their parades honoring friends who have died. This year, Mid-City residents Jared Zeller and Jennifer Pearl plan to be wed during the riotous procession of Kosmic Debris. And Savoy, founder of Bike-us, has a new transportation challenge on his hands this season now that his young daughter Ella is old enough to ride in a bicycle baby seat.
“I want her, as she grows up, to know this joy, to see the city waking up on Mardi Gras morning as we roll by on our bikes and all the different ways people get into it,” says Savoy. “I want that to be something she just knows from an early age.”
Northside Skull and Bones Gang
Some people set an alarm to ensure they’re up early to join the fun of Mardi Gras day. In the Tremé neighborhood, however, residents get a different sort of wake-up call courtesy of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang.
“We come out at the crack of dawn to wake up the people and welcome Mardi Gras, [to] bring the spirits to the streets on Mardi Gras morning,” says Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, the gang’s second chief. “We make a real racket; we even run into some people’s houses and get them out of bed.”
Barnes, a former pro football player, is best known as leader of his Afro-Caribbean-Zydeco band the Louisiana Sunpots and he’s also a ranger with the National Park Service. On Mardi Gras day however, his persona is transformed into a fearsome visage of mortality, dressed in black and covered in skeleton imagery, while his gang members follow suit with skull masks, aprons marked in blood red script and bones carried in hand.
The Northside Skull and Bone Gang’s roots go back well into 19th century New Orleans and echo rituals in Cuba, Haiti and other islands, Barnes explains. The tradition seemed on the wane and for a while the gang was composed only of Barnes and chief Al Morris. But interest grew after the group was featured in a 2003 documentary on black Carnival traditions, All on a Mardi Gras Day, and the gang has invited new members to join.
“Doing this, part of it is continuing the tradition but it’s also about bringing a social consciousness to people in the street. One of the things we tell people is ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust, keep living like you’re living and you’ll end up with us,’” he says.
The tradition, Barnes says, is intimately tied up with the spiritual roots of Mardi Gras, with its indulgences before penance.
“We are the embodiment of this whole cycle, fertility, life, death, the resurrection. There are people who are deathly afraid of death.” Says Barnes. “We’re here to tell them that you can’t get out of it but you can be a productive citizen and not bring other people down with you.”