What it's all About

There is no one way to celebrate Mardi Gras, a dizzying amalgamation of happenings that occur within a framework of established conventions. Nevertheless, when planning a Mardi Gras party, you’re better off knowing about king cake cheats, the prerogatives of tinsel royalty, the sociology of “earning” beads and the importance of foolishness in the observance of tradition.

2001 Knights of Hermes parade

Everybody knows that Mardi Gras is a time to frolic and have fun, to cut loose — to throw down, as they say in the Big Easy. But what about the trappings and traditions — the masks, beads, king cake and mock royalty; the ubiquitous purple, green and gold? Aren’t these mere trivialities — just so much froufrou — when the real reason for the season is to let pleasure rule?

Yes and no. Mardi Gras is an amalgamation of crazy habits and rituals that occur within a framework of established conventions. As a point of departure for celebrating — a collection of reference points, really — that framework is infinitely flexible, allowing for plenty of freedom to improvise.

Mardi Gras customs include balls and parties; thematic parades with floats and marching bands; walking-club processions; acquiring beads and other baubles tossed from floats or balconies; and general revelry in the streets. All of which are augmented in various ways by pretend royalty, costuming/fancy dressing,  king cake; special decorations and props; beads and other baubles handed out or tossed from floats or balconies; plus music, drinking and dancing. Collectively, these elements comprise a cultural “tool kit” or repertoire whereby different themes and symbols are continuously cobbled together, recycled and reinterpreted through a wide variety of art forms and aesthetic motifs.

Mardi Gras, in short, is a highly dynamic phenomenon, in which traditions are constantly being reinterpreted and invented anew. There is no one way to celebrate Mardi Gras.

So, yes, anyone can buy some provisions and throw a “Mardi Gras party.” But doing so without bonding in some way to the framework, i.e., the Mardi Gras tradition, is akin to observing Thanksgiving without reference to Pilgrims and turkeys or Easter without reference to Jesus and bunny eggs.

Given some of the prevalent images of Mardi Gras in the popular consciousness — masked riders tossing trinkets from glitzy parade floats, women leaning over French Quarter balconies to flash flesh as amateur paparazzi and drunken college boys hoot and jeer — it’s little wonder why the festival’s connection to Judeo-Christian tradition may seem somewhat tenuous, at best. Suffice is to say, the Dionysian spirit of pre-Christian revels involving festive release, character change and disguise, and the suspension of the usual social order survived in Carnival, which came to be more or less accepted by Church fathers as a necessary period of foolishness and folly before the atonement and abstinence of Lent. Because the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, was one of feasting, it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.

Is there a difference between Carnival and Mardi Gras? Strictly speaking, yes — although the terms are often used interchangeably. Carnival is the season of merriment that begins on feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) — it’s the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the gift-bearing wise men visited the Christ child — and culminates on Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is supposed to represent a farewell to the fat, or flesh, as traditionally symbolized by the fatted bull or ox (boeuf gras). Nowadays king cake is the most widely recognized symbol of pre-Lenten feasting. It customarily appears on Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night, but is most in demand in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Included with each cake is a small plastic baby. In New Orleans, popular custom holds that whoever receives the slice that contains the baby must purchase the next cake and throw a party.

Concealing a tiny treasure in a celebratory cake has long been a tradition in Europe. Originally a bean was used, and its discovery commemorated the discovery of Jesus’ divinity by the Magi. Legend has it that the cakes were made in the shape of a ring and colorfully decorated to resemble a bejeweled crown. The finder of the bean or trinket, duly anointed king or queen, would preside over the festivities, often with a consort of his or her choosing.

Costuming and king cakes are prominent manifestations of Mardi Gras Madness, a collective mania that’s woven deeply into New Orleans’ renown culture of revelry.

Perhaps in part because king cake has become so commonplace — appearing on Friday afternoons at the office or practically any festive occasion during the Carnival season — utilizing the so-called “luck-of-the-draw” method, whereby the finder of the cherished plastic baby is automatically elevated into the pantheon of royals, is more the exception these days than the rule.

In any case, whoever gets the baby is supposed to buy the next cake. It’s a game, based on an honor system. The party-goer who gets the slice with the baby is supposed to announce, “I got the baby!”

Alas, as the king cake ritual has taken on a more casual form, reports of abuses have surfaced. King-cake cheats, as described by Siona LaFrance in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “get the baby, but remain mum.”  Or they “cut into the cake and, if the knife touches plastic, shift it to avoid the baby, or worse, leave the baby orphaned amidst the crumbs and sugar icing.”

As horrifying as that may seem, things can get even uglier when king cake neophytes mistake the ritual for a treasure hunt and their fork for a shovel. Consider what ensued when Maria Chandler, a New Orleans native residing in Beverly Hills, decided, as she relates in an interview, to “share the culture” with some newbies.

“I said, ‘Whoever gets the baby gets to throw another king cake party.’ Everybody thought, ‘Oh, Mardi Gras king cake party! I want a piece!’

“It was pandemonium,” she continues. “They all went crazy. They ate some of it, but they were digging for that baby. That was the main objective.” Result: culinary carnage.

Mardi Gras is an idiosyncratic melding of the sacred and profane, but when it comes to king cake, not much is sacred anymore. There are now K-9 king cakes for dogs, and it’s not unheard of for school kids to be served peanut-butter-and-jelly king cake. Moreover, king cakes come in shapes and colors to complement just about any occasion.

Amidst the king cake blitz, one can at least take comfort in the fact that a Mardi Gras king cake is still dutifully topped with purple, green and gold/yellow granules or sprinkles. These colors are to Mardi Gras what red, white and blue are to the 4th of July.

History doesn’t record the exact reason why the Rex organization, in making its Mardi Gras debut in 1872, adopted the color scheme, though Carnival historian Errol Laborde, in his book Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization, plausibly asserts that the krewe members were guided by the laws of heraldry.

Some New Orleanians, rather than take down their trees after Christmas, simply redecorate for Mardi Gras.

In any case, the colors, which looked good together in a gaudy sort of way, captured the public’s imagination and, via Rex’s 1892 procession, entitled “Symbolism of Colors,” came to signify justice, faith and power, respectively. On a less idealistic level, they speak to a collective mania known as Mardi Gras Madnes and the tendency of citizens of the realm to revel in decorative frenzies.

Indeed, Mardi Gras is like Halloween in that the accouterments of the holiday seem to grow exponentially. New Orleanians just can’t seem to get enough of it.

Mardi Gras dolls and masks have been known to wind up as grill ornaments on the front-ends of delivery vehicles; tricolored wreaths hang from doors and gates all over town; poles and pillars are wrapped in tinsel and ribbons; Mardi Gras-themed store windows lure bauble junkies; elaborately festooned balconies add to the festive ambiance of the French Quarter; and at night, the cupola of the Hibernia National Bank building, in the Central Business District, is bathed in stripes of purple, green and gold light.

Mardi Gras Christmas trees are a trend. Hard-core Mardi Gras people are said to bleed purple, green and gold.

So if you’re planning a Mardi Gras party, while not necessarily needing to roll out a tricolored carpet, you’ll at least have to pay homage to Carnivaldom’s culture of festivity by splashing some “PGG” around somewhere. Even if that means going no further than to rummage through a closet for some old Mardi Gras beads (which, among many other uses, can dress up a buffet table or be hung from doorknobs, chandeliers and lampshades).

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras revels can range from intimate gatherings with king cake and Champagne to glittering, elaborately choreographed balls; from thematic parades with fantastic floats to spontaneous eruptions of dance and joie de vivre in the street; from costume contests to coronation ceremonies; from family picnics with red beans and rice to tea parties held in honor of debutantes. But if the gala is diffuse and lacking in centralized organization, even the most offbeat and loosely organized activities have some things in common with the grand spectacles.

Behind most any Mardi Gras endeavor is a leader, known as the captain or big chief. In general terms, the captain’s role is to set the pace and light the fires to keep things going, to get the word out that it’s time for the “krewe” — the generic term for virtually any group involved in Mardi Gras — to congregate and plan for the gala.

Kings and queens of Carnival krewes perform mainly ceremonial functions; the captain is the real power behind the throne.

In Mardi Gras parlance, the term “captain” most properly refers to the leader of a non-profit organization that sponsors a parade and/or ball. As the “power behind the throne,” the captain basically calls the shots. Traditionally, his or her identity is supposed to be kept secret — a legacy dating back to the 1800s, when a handful of “mystic” societies, modeled after similar groups in Mobile, Ala., orchestrated Carnival festivities in New Orleans. While leaders of krewes that adhere to the so-called “old-line” tradition still strive to maintain their anonymity, other captains have readily embraced modern-day celebrity culture, giving TV interviews and posing unmasked for photos in glossy magazines.

The Mistick Krewe of Comus coined the term “krewe” in 1857. In ancient mythology, from which many New Orleans krewes derive their names, Comus is the son of the necromancer Circe and reveler Bacchus. But the Comus krewemen drew their inspiration from the work of English poet and pamphleteer John Milton. In his list of “persons” at the front of A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, Milton refers to “Comus and his crew.” In adopting the whimsical variation of “crew” and the archaic spelling of “mystic,” the founders of Comus, who were predominantly of Anglo-Saxon descent, supposedly intended to give their endeavor an Old English flavor.

Comus is often credited with having originated the “format” of modern-day Mardi Gras — presenting a thematic, meticulously organized spectacle, followed by a tableau ball, at a time when Mardi Gras was a somewhat unruly street-masking affair. In a torchlit procession on Mardi Gras, members were got up as “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” They rolled with brass bands and two floats — one carrying a member personifying the krewe’s namesake god; the other, Satan.

Whereas Rex, also known as the King of Carnival, appears on Mardi Gras unmasked, the identity of Comus, the namesake god of the prototypical blue-blood krewe, is never publicly revealed.

While parades and parties sponsored by krewes can involve untold hours of planning and preparation, Mardi Gras is also very much about serendipity and improvisation, about doing what’s right on the spur of the moment and rationalizing later. An idea for a krewe can easily take wing on a whim or headline in the news.

Example: A week before Fat Tuesday 1999, Jerry Falwell, founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, warned in his newspaper that Tinky Winky, of the cult children’s TV showThe Teletubbies, was a gay role model. In a take-off on the resulting controversy, a group calling themselves the Krewe of Falwell came out for Mardi Gras in Teletubby getups — and walked away with first prize in the group category at the 35th annual Bourbon Street Awards costume contest. Playing off the fact that the characters in the show have televisions in their stomachs, the krewe’s costumes featured the mug of the right-wing evangelist.

The prototypical impromptu, follow-your-bliss krewe was born on a rainy Christmas Eve night in 1831, in Mobile, Ala. A cotton broker named Michael Krafft — described in a contemporary account as “a fellow of infinite jest and…fond of fun of any kind” — apparently found himself in the doorway of a hardware store, quite likely intoxicated. He gathered up a string of cowbells and attaching them to the teeth of a rake, went on his merry way, clattering. According to what Carnival Historian Samuel Kinser regards as the most credible account of that night’s events, Krafft, having drawn a crowd, caught the attention of a passer-by who exclaimed, “ ‘Hello, Mike — what society is this?’ Michael, giving his rake and extra shake and looking up at his bells, responded, ‘This? This is the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.’ ”

The Cowbellions went on to become Mobile’s premiere Carnival organization, sponsoring New Year’s Eve masquerades and even venturing to New Orleans in the late 1830s to partake in Mardi Gras. In 1840, the krewe presented its first parade with floats depicting a specific theme: “Heathen Gods and Goddesses.” A masked ball followed.

The Cowbellion de Rakin Society, founded on lark, had become an institution, showing the way for Comus. And although Comus no longer parades — it withdrew from the streets after its 1991 procession, because of differences with the New Orleans City Council over a newly adopted Carnival antidiscrimination ordinance — members have been known to march through the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, brandishing rakes and ringing cowbells in homage to the Cowbellions and the waggish spirit of Michael Krafft.

Foolishness in observance of tradition is a staple of Mardi Gras. It’s a time when cunningly sarcastic individuals really shine, when otherwise inappropriate actions might seem entertaining. In New Orleans at Carnival time, omnipresent jester imagery serves as a constant reminder that true Carnival custom involves the spirit of merry mockery.

By celebrating the Roman god Bacchus, his gift of viniculture to humankind and the rapture therein, Box of Wine strives to recreate the communal ecstasy of ancient rites in which wine was a medium of religious experience.

The writer Robert Tallant once described Carnival as “a mock revival of monarchic rule,” and every year in New Orleans the thrills and glories of this make-believe world are reenacted, with a new cast of kings and queens. Their lineage stretches back into the mists of history, to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, an observance tied to the winter solstice and held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and civilization.

Presiding over the festivities was the King of Saturnalia, a mock monarch. The manner of his choosing — by throwing dice, drawing a lot, or discovering a fava bean or coin in a piece of cake — related to the mythology surrounding Saturn, whose reign was believed to be so just that there were no slaves or private property. Thus it was decreed during Saturnalia that all should be given equal rights, and indeed even a slave could rule. As author Bridget Ann Henisch explains in her book Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition, “Every member of the party had to obey the King’s command, and dance, or sing, or jump into a tub of cold water, at the royal whim.”

In the colonial era, Creoles, as New Orleans residents of French and Spanish descent took to calling themselves, used the luck-of-the-draw method to divine royalty during a season of balls, called les bals des Rois (the balls of Kings), that began on Twelfth Night and ended on Fat Tuesday. A bean, almond, pecan or perhaps even a jeweled ring would be hidden in a gateau des Rois, a French-style pastry filled with frangipane (made from almond paste, eggs, butter and sugar). Whoever received the slice with the trinket would get to choose a consort and together, they’d reign over the ball.

Each week a new king and queen were crowned. The reigning queen would host the next gala at her home; the king, however, was expected to foot the bill.

In the latter half of the 19th century, members of elite Carnival organizations in New Orleans began acting out aristocratic fantasies by carrying on in the style of the royal courts and palaces of Old Europe. Eventually, tableau balls featuring the presentation of Carnival courts, with debutante queens and maids, became vehicles for krewe members to sponsor their daughters’ “coming out” to society.

In the early decades of the 20th century, new krewes comprised of tradesmen and laborers (Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club), as well as business and professional men (Knights of Hermes, Knights of Babylon), appeared. A gradual democratization of Carnival had begun that was in keeping with, if not motivated by, the “Every man a king” spirit of Louisiana politician Huey Long. No longer was Carnival’s tinsel royalty born exclusively to the upper crust.

Today’s Carnival royals come from all walks of life, and in many different guises. It’s a topsy-turvy realm where even a orphaned mutt can become a pampered queen.

A Cinderella story in the topsy-turvy realm that is New Orleans Carnival.

By virtue of the fact that she is always a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals adoptee, the queen of the canine Mystic Krewe of Barkus, which sniffs its way through the French Quarter on the second Sunday before Mardi Gras, is almost by definition a rags-to-riches Cinderella story. According to a krewe insider, she is chosen in a “secret ceremony very similar to the way the Pope is elevated in the Vatican.” Her consort is typically chosen based on his owner’s dedication to the krewe.

Bacchus, who reigns over the parade of the same name, is always a non-member recruited from the world of showbiz. The Krewe of Endymion holds a drawing in which virtually every one of its 2200-plus members has a shot at being chosen king. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club holds elections, in which aspiring kings campaign for members’ votes. The winner gets to choose his queen.

Rex, Latin for “king,” is always a member of the Rex organization who has distinguished himself through professional and civic activities. Rex and his queen, a debutante anointed by krewe leaders partly on the basis of her father’s prominence, are considered to be monarchs of the entire Carnival celebration. On the eve of Mardi Gras, at a ceremony/party along the riverfront, Rex, in accordance with tradition, assumes nominal control of the city and proclaims Mardi Gras to be a day of revelry. (For Carnival’s mock royalty, reciting proclamations and delivering spirited toasts are cherished prerogatives.)

While it may be true, as historian S. Frederick Starr observes in his book New Orleans Unmasqued, that Mardi Gras is “a city-wide indulgence in pure fantasy that has no parallel on the entire North American continent,” a significant percentage of French Quarter revelers aren’t masked on Fat Tuesday. (The Spring Break crowd, now very much a part of the French Quarter scene, is generally more interested in booze, beads and boobs than clever costumes.) Nevertheless, masks and make-believe should be de rigeur wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated.

At Mardi Gras, symbols, idols and topics in the news become feedstock for costuming, commentary and commemoration.

Mardi Gras is a time when social hierarchies are joyously suspended, when a new face and different attire make distinctions of class, color and culture less relevant. “To mask” is to step outside one’s everyday life and assume another identity, an altered psyche, if only for a day. It is this ability to escape the prosaic that bestows the exhilaration and magic inherent in the words “Mardi Gras.” Thus, the button-down lawyer or tax accountant — got up in white hose, bloomer shorts, a tunic and rhinestone-encrusted boots, and perhaps sporting a wig and fake beard — becomes His Majesty. All hail!

If you’re not like the average New Orleanian, handy with a hot glue gun and possessing a well-stocked costume and accessories closet built up over years of masquerading, just make due with whatever you can lay your hands on. Even a party hat and dollar-store mask can facilitate the kind personality transformation that is in keeping with the “Mardi Gras spirit.” Heck, the first king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club reigned with a banana stalk for a scepter and a lard can for a crown.

In dramatizing or disguising the fears, dreams and fantasies of its maskers, Mardi Gras has always been a hungry beast, voraciously devouring morsels of culture high and low. News headlines and topical symbols and idols become fodder for costuming and commentary. Effigies and icons are gleefully paraded through the streets.

Back in the so-called Golden Age of Carnival, from the 1880s through the 1920s, krewes went to extraordinary lengths to dramatize subjects that tended toward the whimsical and arcane. Every last detail, as reflected in the costumes, ball décor and the design of the floats and ball invitations, would coalesce in a sophisticated evocation of a theme. While parades of this era occasionally ventured into social commentary and political lampooning, mythology, literature, history and religion comprised the dominant source material.

Compared to mainstream parades, the bawdy Krewe du Vieux offers a more hands-on, participatory experience akin to do-it-yourself performance art, with various “sub-krewes” each presenting a unique take on an overarching theme intended to inspire satire and social commentary.

Today’s thematic ephemera is more often the stuff of popular culture, and runs the gamut from the topical and satirical (e.g., “Looziana: Scandals and Scoundrels”) to the generically insipid (“Broadway and the Silver Screen”). Among “mainstream” New Orleans Carnival organizations — those groups comprising the city’s “official” schedule of float parades that roll in a 12-day window leading up to and including Fat Tuesday — themes that celebrate the history and peculiarities of New Orleans and Louisiana are a mainstay.

For the multitude of groups that operate around the fringes of mainstream Carnival, a theme often serves as a clue meant to inspire creative costuming and, in the case of Barkus and the notoriously irreverent and bawdy Krewe du Vieux, float decorating. Parading on the third Saturday before Mardi Gras, the notoriously irreverent and wacky Krewe du Vieux is actually comprised of 17 “sub-krewes,” each of which, in adopting its own sub-theme, presents a unique take on the overarching theme of the mother krewe.

Barkus themes always have a canine twist (e.g.,“Joan of Bark,” “Voyage of the Tailtanic: Dogs and Children First,” “Saturday Bite Fever,” “Tailhouse Rock: From Graceland to Jazzland”). For the Krewe of Mystic Orphans and Misfits (M.O.M.s), whose raucous private ball is known for elaborate and racy costuming, the choice is usually an innuendo (e.g., “Assume Nothing but the Position,” “Forever Tongue,” “Last Licks”).

“Laid” in 1985, the Ducks of Dixieland, a marching ensemble, always mask as ducks, but manage to come up with imaginative, individualized takes on a common theme, which is decided months in advance of Mardi Gras. Past efforts have included “People who Forgot to Duck,” which paid homage to the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette; and “Lords of a Feather,” a parody of the gay Carnival krewe Lords of Leather.

Mardi Gras, if nothing else an exhibitionist’s festival, is a time to shake your feathers loose. And if it’s Mardi Gras in the New Orleans, where conventional mores have a tendency to evaporate, participants — especially visitors from less balmy and permissive climes — often seem to feel entitled to test the limits of decorum. It is this “naughty” side of the festivities, only prevalent in the French Quarter, that has often seemed to fascinate non-local media, while also garnering notoriety from the Girls Gone Wild videos promoted on cable television.

While Mardi Gras has always served as a forum for expressing sexual fantasies, the flesh-for-beads show is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was started by locals, perhaps going back as far as 1975. Beads weren’t sold in the French Quarter emporiums back then, so it was generally only locals who knew where to procure them. And it was locals, no doubt including striptease dancers employed on Bourbon Street, who had access to what where then private balconies. (Bars with public balconies on Bourbon Street only came into existence in the early 1980s.)

Beads and other trinkets, known as “throws,” have been tossed from floats at least since 1910 — transforming parades into a participatory experience, as spectators beg and scramble for treasure. As recently as the 1960s, Mardi Gras beads were hand-strung and made of glass. They were too expensive to be thrown in liberal quantities by float riders. Catching a single strand was considered a blessed event.

For some, engaging in “transactions” to accumulate “bead wealth” provides an addictive adrenal rush.

Then along came cheap plastic beads, imported from the Orient. As the bead industry evolved and its wares became bigger, gaudier and more widely available, the exchange ritual involving flashes of bare flesh took on a more fervent dimension. Negotiations over beads became more common as the diversity of styles increased. As a transactional medium, a form of currency in a system of exchange, beads enable one to quickly establish a relationship with a total stranger. And for some revelers, exposing body parts that normally remain covered up, besides serving as a way to “earn” beads, provides an addictive adrenal rush.

The “show me” show in the French Quarter has nothing to do with the true spirit of Mardi Gras, however, and indeed some observers lament that it has tarnished the image of the celebration and overshadowed its traditional family orientation. Nevertheless, it has become a leisure activity that appeals to tourists.

But, alas, what began in a spirit of lighthearted indulgence has succumbed to voyeuristic exploitation. Many a tipsy co-ed caught up in the “thrill of the moment” has later come regret that, thanks to the Internet and the robust market for titillating “reality” videos, what’s revealed in New Orleans doesn’t necessarily stay in New Orleans.

Of course, what passes for fun in the French Quarter might land you in the pokey or offend sensibilities elsewhere. But the most important thing about Mardi Gras beads, and the reason why they became so popular, is not their association with flashing. Beads are key to Mardi Gras-style revelry because they provide festive ornamentation and facilitate fun and games and conviviality. If nothing else, possessing beads gives one the power to induce shameless groveling.

It’s a misnomer that you have to engage in immodesty to get good beads — literally, tons are thrown off parade floats along with plush krewe mascots and an endless variety of other baubles. The thrill and challenge of acquiring the loot becomes a competitive sport — bringing ecstasy and fulfillment, however fleeting — and even old folks and dignified ladies in evening dresses will scramble for a piece of the action. No matter that the thrill can begin to fade almost as soon as the gewgaws are in one’s grasp. In the frenzied heat of the moment, the perceived value of the exotic bounty cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Because it cannot be bought, only bestowed and won, it is, in a sense, priceless. Buying into this illusion is a big part of the fun.

“Second line” can also refers to the style of dancing inspired by the distinctive syncopated rhythm, i.e., the “second-line beat,” associated with New Orleans-style processions. <p>— Photo by Pat Jolly</p>

If Mardi Gras revelry is an eclectic gumbo, along with king cake, throws, masks and make-believe, add music and second lining to the list of essential ingredients. To oversimplify, second lining is a celebratory style of dancing that is inspired by what Dr. John, the foremost living interpreter of New Orleans musical traditions, has called “happy-times music” — music that makes you “shake your butt until your butt is funky.” To “do the second line” is, in essence, to shake your butt and strut your stuff.

Second lining grew out of traditional African American parades — specifically, jazz funerals. Strictly speaking, the “second line” refers to the secondary mass of people — uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up — who join in the processions, following behind the hearse, mourners and brass band (i.e., the “first line”).

Before arriving at the cemetery, the band plays solemn dirges. But after the services, when the procession is a respectable distance away from the sacred space, the musicians celebrate the life of the deceased by bursting into up-tempo parade bounces. The distance between the performers and the audience breaks down, as the second liners engulf the band, moving to the beat as bodies strut and gyrate, as handkerchiefs wave and fancy umbrellas twirl. It is the role of the grand marshal, whose accouterments may include a staff and a whistle, to regulate the tempo of the procession. (Note, however, that in the context of Mardi Gras parades, the grand marshal is more often than not an honorary role featuring a local or, in the case of the Krewe of Endymion and Krewe of Orpheus, national celebrity.)

Mardi Gras music, like Christmas music, is not so much a style of music as it is an aural milieu comprised of various forms: processional and big-band arrangements played at fancy-dress balls; Mardi Gras-themed rhythm-and-blues numbers that pour out of jukeboxes; Afro-Caribbean chants and percussive rhythms associated with Mardi Gras Indians; parade-time beats from school bands that march between floats in parades; and “the good jumping music of brass bands,” as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong wrote of the sounds he heard in the Zulu parade as a boy growing up in the Crescent City.

Mardi Gras music is really any music that has at least a passing acquaintance with the joyous license of New Orleans street celebrations. Perhaps no one has captured this rollicking, devil-may-care spirit as resoundingly as Al Johnson, in his classic anthem “Carnival Time.” “All because it’s Carnival time,” goes the familiar refrain, “everybody’s having fun.”


All things Mardi Gras in New Orleans