Monday, April 13, 2009

Mardi Gras Indians | Super Sunday | NOLA (c/o Jambase)

c/o Jambase

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)

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & The Golden Eagles
Like many traditions outside of the mainstream, the history of the Mardi Gras Indians is nebulous at best. Some accounts trace the origins back to the 1880s, while others reach back even farther. Pieced together from oral history, the Mardi Gras Indians story represents a bloodline in New Orleans that runs from slavery through the struggles for civil rights and into the current socio-economic disparities that make up New Orleans. Mainstream Mardi Gras organizations ("krewes"), historically and currently, have been the domain of the social elite of New Orleans. These once secret societies excluded the majority of the population from their celebrations, and the Mardi Gras Indians may have emerged as a response to this. Believed to have been inspired by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show of the 1880s and as a tribute to the Native American Indian tribes surrounding New Orleans who assisted and welcomed escaped slaves, the Mardi Gras Indians traditionally took to the streets in gangs (later called "tribes"). The tribes developed a hierarchy consisting of Big Chief, Wild Man, Flag Boy and Spy Boy.

"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 Today, the violence of previous encounters has been replaced by a competition to determine whose suit is "prettiest."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)

Big Chief Al & Big Queen Wanda - Cheyenne Tribe
The rhythms of the Indians come directly from Congo Square, the historical gathering place of slaves, where African and Caribbean polyrhythms mixed and gave birth to a uniquely New Orleans music. The musical influence of the Mardi Gras Indians can be traced through Danny Barker, Huey "Piano" Smith, Earl King, The Dixie Cups and Dr. John. The first direct impact of the Indian's music was caused by the 1973 release by Bo Dollis and The Wild Magnolias, featuring Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles. In 1975, the Neville Brothers were gathered together for the first time, along with The Meters, to record an album with the Neville's uncle, Big Chief Jolly. These sessions produced the Wild Tchopatoulis, as well as solidified the Neville Brothers as a band.

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

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