Recently I was talking to a man who’s an official of the Knights of Hermes. He was effusive about the group’s 2011 parade. “It will be the most beautiful ever,” he exclaimed. He also mentioned the parade’s theme, which is one of those obscure classical legends that only two people along the parade route, if that many, will be familiar with – but I respect that. As the man continued, I thought that here was an example of the best of Mardi Gras. First there was a theme that hearkened to days when classically educated men drew from mythology and history to design their parades rather than pandering to the crowds and then, there was the creativity of designing floats to fit the theme. Hermes is one of the groups that does things well rather than some makeshift, off-the-lot parade with rented floats ridiculously forced into a generic theme.
That got me to thinking about what might be called the “Quintessential Mardi Gras” – those parts of Carnival life that reflect quality and tradition, that aren’t about commercialism and that are enduring. Most of what’s quintessential is lost the further one gets from New Orleans, but in the city the roses still grow, even among the weeds.
Here, then, is my list:
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.
This will be the 25th anniversary since the term “Lundi Gras” became part of the common language of Carnival and since Rex restarted his annual tradition of arriving by boat. There is still majesty in seeing a king arrive. Lately Zulu has visited him – and the partying begins.
Original floats with satirical themes
Momus and Comus both fooled with 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.
Society of St. Anne
Carnival’s greatest confederation of mixed maskers ascends from the streets of Marigny and then crosses the French Quarter toward Canal Street, providing a procession that totally captures the sprit of Carnival.
There is no sharper band in all of Carnival than the local Marine Reserves band. The musicianship and the movements are perfect, both in parades and at Carnival balls.
Mardi Gras Indians, in the neighborhoods
A once very isolated practice got national attention this past year 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.
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.
Jock-A-Mo Fee Na-Ne
Something that is culturally rich even has elements of its own language. If you don’t understand what the big chief says, then “jock-a-mo fee na-ne” to you. And furthermore:
Look at my king all dressed in red.
Iko, Iko, un-day
I betcha five dollars he’ll kill you dead
Jock-a-mo fee na-ne
My flag boy and your flag boy
Were sittin’ by the fire.
My flag boy told your flag boy,
“I’m gonna set your flag on fire.”
Talkin’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!
Iko, Iko, un-day
Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-ne
Jock-a-mo fee na-ne
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:
Rex: His Majesty’s Royal Bandwagon
Endymion: Welcome to the Mardi Gras
Among the “throne floats,” those that the monarch rides, Proteus’, with its sea god theme, is one of the most magical.
Rex mounted Lieutenants
Dressed in waves of purple, green and gold, these masked riders are among Mardi Gras morning’s most striking sights.
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 a flock of robins whose appearance is a harbinger of the new season. Professor Longhair’s “Goin’ to the Mardi Gras” has that impossible-to-keep-still-to 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!
Gay Carnival Balls
Though gay creativity permeates all of Carnival, the most visual manifestation are the so-called gay Carnival balls.
This year some of the krewes are moving back to their old haunt, the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium, which has recovered from Hurricane 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 50th 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’s 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.
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 between the floats in Muses.
“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’s easy to dance to as 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’s both royal and celebratory. Plus, no other sovereign has the same tri-colors.
In the beginning there was Comus, creator of traditions, and then came 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.