Alan Langhoff

Krewe of Kosmic Debris has a loose, inclusive structure that invites participation and interaction among musicians, dancers and basically anyone else who feels like joining in their Dionysian escapades, known as “tumbles.” “Things happen,” says Alan Langhoff of these infectious revels. “You’re laying groundwork and setting premises and defining a territory in such a way that it allows people to exhibit their spontaneity.”

Kosmic Reveler

“The idea of being with your tribe and taking to the stret has a lont of nice things going on with it."
Alan Langoff remembers being pushed along in the dense Mardi Gras throng and encountering a man sitting in the middle of Bourbon Street with a broken hurricane glass, crying like a child over spilt milk. Only he wasn’t really crying—he was clowning. A bemused Langhoff, then about 12 years old, watched as random people stopped to offer condolences and assistance to the forlorn reveler.

Further along, Langhoff encountered a group of four merchant seamen, presumably from Brazil. All of them were diminutive in stature, and one carried a broomstick with a postcard-size sign proclaiming “The real Mardi Gras from Rio.” Banging on bottles and tin pans with sticks, “they had this great little beat, going down the street pushing through the crowd,” recalls Langhoff, who wound up following the rag-tag group around for a while.

Langhoff went on to found his own merrymaking ensemble, Krewe of Kosmic Debris, in 1976. Looking back, he says that he regards both episodes as “formative experiences,” having represented “the freedom to create situations that the crowd would interact with.”

Hence Kosmic Debris’s loose, inclusive structure, which invites participation and interaction among musicians, dancers and basically anyone else who feels like joining in their Dionysian escapades. Besides their free-wheeling romp through the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, Kosmic Debris hits the streets on other occasions such as Halloween and Bastille Day, parading to French Quarter bars like Molly’s on the Market, Stage Door Cafe and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Laying down the groove for these so-called “tumbles,” is the krewe’s musical contingent, The Pair-A-Dice Tumblers.

The Tumblers grew out of informal weekly jam sessions organized in the late 1970s by The Mardi Gras Underground Man, now grand marshal of a spin-off group, The Storyville Stompers New Orleans Brass Band. He admired an underground comic strip illustrated by S. Clay Wilson, one of whose characters was a demon clad in checkered trousers. The demon had an adversary: a motorcycle guy who—in one notable bubble that a friend of the Underground Man liked to quote—vowed to “stomp that checkered turd and his tumblers.” The tumblers were the demon’s gang. In this connection tumblin’ dice somehow came to mind, spawning the name The Pair-A-Dice Tumblers.

The band, in its earliest incarnation, was comprised mostly of hacks who couldn’t read music. Participants usually had some prior musical experience but, for whatever reason, had stopped playing. The Tumblers was basically just an excuse to dust off an old instrument, goof around and learn a few songs—numbers like “Saints” and “Second Line,” which they’d play over and over when out on a tumble. “Marching musical therapy,” says the Underground Man, was the band’s raison d’etre. Jumping in and out of Mardi Gras parades, uninvited, was a favorite pastime.

Over the years, the Tumblers would attract more seasoned musicians and give birth to various spin-off outfits, such as The Down and Dirty Jazz Band, The Bone Tone Brass Band and The Underground Brass Band. A core group of “ringers,” calling themselves The Pair-A-Dice Brass Band, started playing together professionally. But when tumbling with Kosmic Debris, an extemporaneous, anything-goes ethos is still very much in evidence.

Formerly led by the late cornetist Mike “Bear” LeMoine, who proclaimed himself the “Emperor” of Kosmic Debris, the band’s ranks can swell to 20 or more. LeMoine said he’d never missed a Fat Tuesday in his life until 1998, when a flu bug put him out of commission. He cherished a fancy trumpet called the Hydrahorn. Welded to its bell were three brass dragons nourished by lighter fluid. He’d take a light to this pyrohorn, blow on it, and—shazam!—flames would erupt into the air.

Started on lark, the Tumblers would became an influential force in the New Orleans underground scene, enlivening countless parades and "tumbles" while also providing an outlet for lapsed and upstart musicians looking for camaraderie and kicks.
Speaking of tumbles, Langhoff, a self-employed computer consultant, notes that “the idea of being with your tribe and taking to the street has a lot of nice things going on with it. Once you fall under the influence and have the opportunity to do something like that, as opposed to being passive and part of the crowd, it’s hard to look back.”

No kidding. 1997’s Turkey Tumble—an annual outing on the eve of Thanksgiving for which “Debrisites” don Pilgrim and Indian garb—included an impromptu stop at Maxwell’s Jazz Cabaret (under new management, it’s now the Shim Sham Club). Much to the amusement and surprise of the small audience on hand, the Pair-A-Dice Tumblers joined the band on stage for a jam while the rest of the krewe stomped around in a rousing display of New Orleans joie de vivre.

“Things happen,” says Langhoff of such infectious revels. “You’re laying groundwork and setting premises and defining a territory in such a way that it allows people to exhibit their spontaneity.”

A New Orleans Tradition: Tumbling with the Tumblers

Random tourists and other spectators often get caught up in the act. “We pick up these people,” Pat Jolly, a photographer and longtime tumbler, explains. She recalls how one woman who had been a drum majorette in high school years earlier, “just jumped into doing that with the parade.”

On another occasion, Kosmic Debris encountered a group having a stag party for a guy who was getting married. One member of the party—Jolly thinks it was the best man—split off to join the tumble. Jolly had a percussion instrument, a shaker, which the man insisted on borrowing. “He didn’t even know how to play it,” says Jolly, who gave him a quick lesson.

Later on, Jolly approached him to retrieve her instrument. “There was some girl,” she remembers, “who was kind of hustling—coming on to him and everything—and said, ‘So, wouldn’t you rather be dancing with this pretty girl over here?’ And he says, ‘Uh-uh—I’m a musician.’ ”

Says Jolly of such neophyte tumblers: “They don’t know anything about it, they just happen to tumble into us tumbling. Then the next thing you know, they’re just as much a part of the spirit of it as anybody else that’s been doing it for 20 years.”

Eschewing membership dues, rules and other formalities, the krewe offers a loose, inclusive structure that encourages spontaneity and improvisation.
Home base for Kosmic Debris is the bar and music venue on Frenchmen Street formerly known as Dream Palace (now the Blue Nile). Even before proprietor Langhoff opened the doors of Dream Palace in early 1977, he knew he wanted to have a marching club associated with the establishment, and didn’t have to think too hard about what to name it. At a Halloween party he’d thrown years earlier, the phrase “cosmic debris” had “sort of been seared into my brain,” he says, recalling a friend who had shown up dressed in black, with oatmeal pasted all over his face. As the night wore on, the oatmeal began falling on the carpet, prompting Langhoff to ask his friend what he was got-up as. “He said, ‘Cosmic debris.’ ”

One thing about Langhoff: He definitely knows how to seize the moment. He remembers showing up one night at an old country dance bar on Elysian Fields Avenue. The occasion: Krewe of Mystic Orphans & Misfits Ball, a notoriously raucous affair. “I dance one dance. The next thing I know,” says Langhoff, “people are heading for the door. They say, ‘He’s throwing us out, I can’t believe it.’ ”

Langhoff pushed his way through the crowd and found the owner of the joint, an older man, at the back of the bar. “I said, ‘You’re throwing them out, huh?’ He says, ‘Yeah, these sons of bitches—they tore up my place. You know, I don’t need this shit.’

“I said, ‘Well, look. If you don’t mind, I just opened a bar around the corner, and I’d like to invite everyone over.’ ‘Yeah, what the hell,’ ” the man replied. ” ‘Anything—just get them out of here.’

“So I go and jump up on the bar,” Langhoff continues: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, happy Mardi Gras! I just opened a bar one block away—everyone come over to Dream Palace.’ Did my pitch right there.”

A hundred-plus revelers wound up at Dream Palace that night. Langhoff says he played the front side of a Bob Marley album “over and over all night long, for about five hours. Everyone danced in like a circle around the room the whole night. It was just like the most amazing thing….

“Anyone who showed up,” adds Langhoff, “remembers that night at the Dream Palace.”

All things Mardi Gras in New Orleans