Words & Images by: Jeffrey Dupuis
Well, the prettiest thing that you ever did see
Is a Mardi Gras Indian, down in New Orleans
They sowed all night, and they sowed all day,
If you ain't ready, better get out da way
- Hey Pocky Way (traditional/alternate version not The Meters)
"Meet the boys on the battle front, the Wild Tchopatoulis gonna stomp some rump." - traditional
Historically, the gangs would parade through their neighborhoods during Mardi Gras, chanting, singing and drumming. As his name implies, the Spy Boy would venture out first to look for rival gangs, signaling to the Flag Boy, who would then communicate to the Big Chief. When one gang would encounter another, they would often fight to determine which was superior. Many of the lyrics to traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs come from these encounters. Today, the violence of previous encounters has been replaced by a competition to determine whose suit is "prettiest." The beauty and splendor of the Indians today is a living and still evolving history of New Orleans. Women and children have joined in the proud tradition. The Indians parade on Mardi Gras Day, and also on "Super Sunday," traditionally the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day.
"[Mardi Gras Indian] culture permeates everything that's got anything to do with New Orleans music... It's like the air you breathe." - Cyril Neville as told to Nick Spitzer (American Roots)
Multiple albums from various tribes have followed ever since, and their influence is still heard today. "War Chief" Juan Pardo of the Golden Comanche Tribe carries on the tradition of making Indian music accessible through the band 101 Runners.
"Really it's nothing new. The Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchopatoulis took it global. My part is to bring a new energy to it – to rejuvenate the old spirit," Pardo says. "The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is in transition. It has never died, so it has never stopped evolving. It's the 'Wild Wild Creation.' When you listen to the old way, it's coming out of slavery and oppression. Today, our spirit is not oppressed. We've taken what they've given us. We stay in our communities, and we invite others to come into our community to experience it. But, if you're gonna come out, pick your tribe and cheer loud! Without the vocals of the people, it's a quiet day."
Suggested Listening and Reading:
Wild Tchopatoulis, Wild Tchopatoulis (1978)
Wild Magnolias, Life is a Carnival (1999) & the recent re-issue They Call Us Wild (available below)
Smith, Michael P. and Alan Govenar (1994). "Mardi Gras Indians" Gretna: Pelican
|War Chief Juan Pardo|
|Big Chief Bo Dollis|
|Big Chief Walter Cook|
JamBase | Big Easy