In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues. In our latest story, KNKX's John Kessler shares the culture and sounds of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is the finale to weeks of balls and parades, and is the last party before Lent, a time of penance before Easter. But the musical vibe of Mardi Gras lasts all year long in the Crescent city.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a celebration as unique as the city itself. And like the city, Mardi Gras has a gumbo of influences — French, African, Caribbean and American.
It’s part of the celebration of Carnival, tied to the Catholic observance of Lent. Ancient pagan celebrations of spring were adopted into the Christian faith, and the excess of Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, a time of fasting and penance before Easter Sunday.
The first American Mardi Gras took place in 1699, celebrated by French explorers near what is now New Orleans, Louisiana.
In the following years, New Orleans and other towns began observing the holiday with street parties, masked balls and lavish dinners.
By the mid-1800s, social clubs boosted the holiday by hosting parades during Mardi Gras season. Also hugely important is the African-American tradition of Mardi Gras Indians, whose 30-some tribes make up some of the most colorful parades.
While the rivalries were once violent, now the competitions are waged with costumes, dance and music. Parades are choreographed so that competing tribes meet in symbolic battle.
This recording of “JockaMo” by Sugarboy Crawford talks about spy boys and queens, all part of the culture of the mock battle.
Another term you’ll hear about Mardi Gras parade music is “second line,” where the brass players, trumpets, tubas, trombones march in front followed by a “second line” of drummers and dancers.
The culture of Mardi Gras in New Orleans extends well beyond a few weeks in early spring. It has become a huge part of the ongoing musical sound and identity of New Orleans.