There’s a new addition to my annual list of the “Best of Carnival,” proof that even without parades, Carnival showed last year that it can thrive and create new ideas.
New to the List
The Krewe of House Floats
This was the troubled 2021 Carnival’s gift to the season—House Floats. The decorated front porches (collectively known as Yardi Gras) which appeared throughout town, were quite creative and provided extra work for artists. We’re glad to see the tradition continuing and providing more participation for the neighborhoods, where there is always a need for genuine urban celebration.
AND THE REST OF THE LIST
(in random order.)
Original Floats with Esoteric Themes
Comus began it all, but no longer parades. Following in the tradition are Rex, Proteus, Hermes, Babylon and, among the super krewes, Orpheus.
Original Floats with Satirical Themes
Momus and Comus both used satire back in the politically touchy days of Reconstruction. Momus, who re-introduced the barb in 1977, remains in his den (Carnival-speak for no longer parading) but carrying on the tradition are Chaos, Muses and Le Krewe d’Etat.
Jefferson City Buzzards
This group has been around since 1890, sashaying down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras morning. Other marching groups have emerged since, but the Buzzards, who have their own Uptown clubhouse, came first.
R&B carnival songs, “Goin’ to the Mardi Gras,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Carnival Time”
Mardi Gras has inspired music in many genres including jazz, country (the original version of “Mardi Gras Mambo”), Cajun and more. But it’s the R&B songs that are played over and over every year. They are like robins whose appearance is a harbinger of the new season. Professor Longhair’s “Goin’ to the Mardi Gras” has that impossible to ignore beat; the Neville-ish Hawkette’s version of “Mambo” put Gert Town on the map and the staccato blasts at the beginning of Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” introduce carnival’s liveliest beat, albeit one that talks about a barroom fire on Mardi Gras. Who cares? It’s Carnival time!
There is no sharper band in all of Carnival than the local Marine Forces Reserve Band. The musicianship and the movements are perfect, both in parades and at Carnival balls.
Zulu Hierarchy Floats
Which is more powerful, being King Zulu, or Zulu’s Governor, Mayor or Witch Doctor? Personally, I would pick the Big Shot.
Society of St. Anne
Carnival’s greatest confederation of mixed maskers ascends from the streets of the Marigny and then crosses the Quarter toward Canal Street, providing a procession that totally captures the spirit of Carnival.
This will be the 35th anniversary since the term “Lundi Gras” became part of the common language of Carnival, and since Rex restarted his annual tradition of arriving, originally by boat. There is still majesty in seeing a king arrive. Lately Zulu has visited him—and the partying begins.
Mardi Gras Indians, in the neighborhoods
A once very isolated practice got national attention with the HBO series “Treme” whose storylines included the plight of a Mardi Gras Indian Chief. The New Orleans tribes are certainly worthy of sociological attention, but we appreciate that they also cling to their neighborhood roots. In the streets of Uptown and the 7th Ward, they provide feathery flashes unlike anything else seen in Carnival.
Jock A Mo Fee Na Ne
Something that is culturally rich, like the Indians, even has its own chants. If you don’t understand what the big chief says, than “jock-a-mo-fe-na-ne” to you. Futhermore:
My flag boy and your flag boy weresit-tin' by the fire. - My flag boy toldYour flag boy: "I'm gonna set your flag on fire."
All of the really good parades have original floats built around a creative theme, but dispersed throughout those parades are krewe signature floats—those that are a part of krewe’s annual appearance. Some favorite examples:
Bacchus: Bacchawhoppa. This whale could be the Queen of the sea, but it is not alone.The Bacchus menagerie also includes the Bacchasaurus, a lovable dinosaur, and the Bacchagator; good reason to stay out of the swamps. Wherever Bacchus creatures go, they should be aware of three other creatures from the farm: the King family—King, Queen and Baby Kong,
Rex: His Majesty’s Royal Bandwagon has a real-life jazz band sitting on top playing the city’s native music. The Boeuf Gras (Fatted Ox), surrounded by anxious butchers, represents the “farewell to flesh.” The Butterfly King has been a popular metaphor for a colorful, majestic, but flighty spirit. Rex is the only day parade in this particular group, all the better for the glitter of the gold leaf in the sunlight.
Endymion: “Welcome to New Orleans and the Mardi Gras” was once carnival’s longest float but has been displaced by the tandem Pontchartrain Beach float with a lighting system than provides a wild ride.
Orpheus: Leviathan, the mythical creature has the color and beauty that defines Orpheus. There’s also a baby Leviathan trailing behind.
Muses’ Rubber Ducks is a float tandem that include a momma bathtub duck and her chicks—a true feat of design that even utilized a robot to sculp the Styrofoam. These ducks are so popular that imitation rubber duck throws compete with Muses high heal throws for crowd favorites.
“Throne floats,” those upon which the King or Queen rides, are a form of signature float. These more than any other floats represent the organization. Among throne floats, Proteus’ with the sea god theme is one of the most magical—a beautiful piece of design with the sea boss placed on an ebullient seashell. Proteus, established in 1882, is the second oldest continuing parading organization after Rex. Its float is worthy of leading any parade.
Muses walking groups
Just as Rex, when it staged its first parade in 1872 allowed more participation from “miscellaneous” maskers, Muses has created the opportunity for new and creative groups to take to the streets. Some of the freshest participants in Carnival are marching (or in the case of the Rolling Elvi, riding hogs) between the floats in Muses.
Rex mounted lieutenants
Dressed in waves of purple, green and gold these masked riders are among Mardi Gras morning’s most striking sights.
Gay Carnival balls
Though gay creativity permeates all of Carnival, the most visual manifestation is the, so-called, gay Carnival balls. In recent years, some of the krewes have moved back to their old haunt, the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium, which has recovered from Katrina devastation. No one does it with more grandeur, and feathers, than these groups.
Self-described as the “Grande Dame” of gay Mardi Gras, this krewe celebrates its 56th anniversary this year. It is to gay Carnival balls what Comus was to establishing parades and traditions. Much of what was to follow was shaped and influenced by the earlier group.
St. Charles Avenue during a parade
With the canopy of oaks, the wide median and the charm of the surroundings there is no better place in the world for watching a Mardi Gras parade. Snared beads dangling from the trees throughout the year provide testimony that this is the favored route of Carnival’s march.
“If Ever I Cease to Love”
What began as a 19th century burlesque song has been modified into marches, waltzes, jazz and more, and the lyrics have taken on new meanings, yet Carnival’s anthem works both as something that is easy to dance to or to accompany a royal march. Is there a better Carnival song? If so, may the grand duke Alexis ride a buffalo through Texas.
Purple, green and gold
Initially devised by Rex from the laws of heraldry, the colors are a perfect blend that is both royal and celebratory. Plus, no other sovereign has the same tri-colors.
In the beginning there was Comus, creator of traditions, and then cam Rex, the people’s monarch. At the end of each Carnival season, the people symbolically bow to tradition, and in the world of Carnival, that’s how it should be.
Once near extinction, Le Krewe d'Etat and Orpheus have created new ones to go along with the vintage torches owned by Proteus. The glow of the lights creates a golden hue ideal for illuminating floats and visually returning the moment to antiquity.
Bordeaux Street float den
What mystery remains there? Do the dusty remains of the former Comus, and Momus parades still stand? Is there life among the Chaos? For a Carnival to be quintessential, there must also be some mystery.
Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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