When it comes to Mardi Gras, the music is everything.
The ebullient craziness that is Fat Tuesday in Louisiana simply wouldn’t be the same without the lyrics and melodies of a slew of legendary songs, from “Go to the Mardi Gras” to “Iko Iko” to “La Danse de Mardi Gras” to “Mardi Gras in the Country.”
While all such tunes share certain general traits – such as infectious, danceable rhythms to the overarching “life is a carnival” message – Mardi Gras music comes in several different forms, each with its own cultural and musical heritage.
The two biggest forms of Fat Tuesday tune-age are rooted in the New Orleans blues, jazz and R&B scenes and the landscape and sounds of the Creole and Cajun traditions in Southwest Louisiana. The two forms are at once alike and different.
“These parties evolved at the same time as two of the most fertile musical scenes in the world developed,” says Rick Koster, the author of the book Louisiana Music. “In Cajun Country or New Orleans, music is part of growing up. You can’t not feel the rhythm. If, then, you’ve got the greatest party in the world and you live in an area with the distinct and innately great musical instinct and tradition, it’s only natural that music would be created precisely to celebrate Mardi Gras – and it would be pretty wonderful.”
Because the New Orleans version of Mardi Gras is the best-known in the U.S., most musical neophytes are more likely to learn about the Crescent City’s deep jazz and R&B traditions that evolved from the city’s rich black heritage.
A NOLA Fat Tuesday soundtrack should begin with Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras,” a ubiquitous tune that springs from two key aspects of Mardi Gras – second-lining and the Zulu parade. You also need to include “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a rollicking, rolling song most famously cut by the Hawketts, as well as “If I Ever Cease to Love,” a goofily addictive track recorded by many artists in different styles. (Ed. Note: The song is Carnival’s anthem as introduced by Rex, King of Carnival, in 1872. At the Rex ball on Mardi Gras night, Rex and his consort, the Queen of Carnival, make their entrance to the march version of the composition.)
Of course, you simply must play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” that jazz standard first popularized by New Orleans’ favorite son, Louis Armstrong. “When the Saints” taps into the city’s strong Catholic heritage, which is the underlying reason why people throw massive blowout parties on the Tuesday before Lent.
A strong cultural undercurrent flowing through Mardi Gras in New Orleans is that of the Mardi Gras Indians, loosely organized, neighborhood-based and splendidly secretive social clubs that create elaborate costumes for the festive Fat Tuesday parades. Songs such as “Iko Iko,” “Indian Red” and “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” (which itself goes by numerous spellings depending on who’s playing it) are staples of the Mardi Gras Indians, whose most famous exponents are the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Now if you head west out of New Orleans and get into the swamps of Southwest Louisiana, you enter Cajun Country, where Mardi Gras music takes on a whole new spin. Although New Orleans often hogs the national Fat Tuesday spotlight, a Cajun Mardi Gras, thanks to its smaller communities and farther-flung geography, is perhaps even more interactive and intimate than its cousin down I-10.
In Southwest Louisiana, Mardi Gras music is underpinned by foot-stomping Cajun and zydeco music, musical forms derived from the region’s French, Acadian and Creole heritages.
Especially in the area’s small cities and even smaller towns, the centerpiece of the holiday is a parade of decoratively costumed, possibly inebriated riders that go from house to house in a ceremonial, frenzied search for gumbo ingredients. The highlights of the ride – or, as many locals appropriately call it, the chicken run – come when residents toss live chickens to the paraders, who then must chase down the feisty little fowl to put in the gumbo, the end product of the ride.
For decades now, the soundtrack to the chicken runs has been the eternally classic song “La Danse de Mardi Gras,” most famously recorded by Cajun legends the Balfa Brothers but covered by countless artists over the years.
Other standards for Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras include “Creole Mardi Gras” and “Mardi Gras Jig.” Some well-known artists have written or recorded songs specially for Fat Tuesday celebrations, while others have become associated with specific musicians, with each track – like “Mardi Gras in the Country” and “Mardi Gras Zydeco” by zydeco luminaries Terrance Simien and Clifton Chenier, respectively – taking on the distinctive personality of its purveyor.
Finally, many southwestern Louisiana musicians have adopted Cajun and Creole variations of traditional New Orleans songs such as “Mardi Gras Mambo” and “Go to the Mardi Gras.”
So, in essence, while the different strains of Mardi Gras music might flow from a wide array of ethnicities and cultures, at their foundation, they all share the spirit of Fat Tuesday – having one hell of a time. They’re also all crucial parts of their respective Mardi Gras traditions, whether you’re in the French Quarter or the outskirts of Mamou.
Unfortunately, especially in New Orleans, the bacchanalian free-for-all that has unfairly turned the image of Mardi Gras into a Girls Gone Wild cliché at times has served to obscure the classic music, with younger revelers knowing nothing about “Fess” or the Nevilles or the Pine Leaf Boys. Says Tom Aswell, author of the book Louisiana Rocks!: “I would have to say the influx of tourists from outside of Louisiana has diminished the significance of Mardi Gras music. Sadly, it is now all about beads, booze and boobs.”
But for those who truly appreciate the holiday’s rich religious, social and cultural roots, the music is in many ways the essence of Fat Tuesday. As Koster says, “A Mardi Gras celebration rocks like nothing else.”