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.
Often led by coronet player Mike “Bear” LeMoine, the self-proclaimed “Emperor” of Kosmic Debris, the band’s ranks can swell to 20 or more. A 43-year-old New Orleanian who claims to have never missed a Fat Tuesday in his life until 1998, when a flu bug put him out of commission, LeMoine is the keeper of a fancy trumpet called the Hydrahorn. Welded to its bell are three brass dragons that feed on lighter fluid. Take a light to this pyrohorn, blow on it, and—shazam!—flames shoot into the air.
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.”