The Best of Carnival
This weekend would have been the march of the Krewe du Vieux. The rowdy krewe’s theme brilliantly matched the world of COVID:“We’ve got no taste.” No group maximizes tasteless as much as KduV. For all of us who do have a taste for the capricious Carnival season, here is my 2021 version of the best of Mardi Gras.
Originally Designed 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. The early themes often referred to classic literature. In frontier America, the parade themes were some of the few references that many people had to early writings. More than being about catching beads the early parades also tried to be educational. But the beads were good too.
Originally Designed Floats with Satirical Themes
Momus and Comus both relied on 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 LeKrewe 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, Carnival Time, Big Chief, Mardi Gras Mambo
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 azaleas 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 Nevilleish 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 Reserves band. The musicianship and the movements are perfect, both in parades and at Carnival balls.
Society of St. Anne
Carnivals greatest confederation of mixed maskers ascends from the streets of Marigny and then crosses the Quarter toward Canal Street providing a procession that totally captures the spirit of Carnival.
This will be the 34th anniversary since the term “Lundi Gras” became part of the common language of Carnival and since Rex restarted his annual tradition of arriving on Monday. There is still majesty in seeing a king arrive. Zulu has enriched the tradition by visiting Rex on that day—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 even has elements of its own language. If you don’t understand what the Big Chief says than “jock-a-mo-fe-na-ne” to you. And furthermore:
Look at my king all dressed in red.-
I-KO, I-KO, 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
sit-tin’ by the fire. – My flag boy told
Your flag boy: “I’m gonna set your flag on fire.”
Talk-in’ ’bout, Hey now ! Hey now ! I-KO, I-KO, 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 a Krewes annual entourage. Some favorite examples:
Rex: His Majesty’s Royal Bandwagon. (Ok, also the Boeuf Gras and the Butterfly King.) Rex is the only day parade in this particular group, all the better for the glitter of the goldleaf in the sunlight.
Endymion: Welcome to the Mardi Gras.
Zulu: Big Shot
Among the kings’ “throne floats,” Proteus’ with the sea god theme is one of the most magical.
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.
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 49th anniversary this year. 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 batter 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.
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.
AND NOW NEW TO THE LIST
This will be the troubled 2021 Carnival’s gift to the season—House Floats. The decorated front porches (collectively known as Yardi Gras) are appearing around town. We predict the tradition will continue into the future and provide more participation for the neighborhoods, where urban celebration is needed the most.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.
Listen to Mardi Gras Beyond the Beads, a seasonal podcast covering the ins and outs of the Carnival season: MyNewOrleans.com/beyondthebeads