Based purely on that fratboy nonsense one sees every year as the mass media depiction of Mardi Gras I must say I was less than impressed and never truly compelled to visit New Orleans during that annual carnival. Being here in the mix is a decidedly different story. Mardi Gras came early this year, colliding rather closely with the dreaded post-holiday bill receipt season and in direct conflict with the Super Bowl on the last Sunday of carnival. (We had a Super Bowl party at our house and some of the revelers split to make the short walk to St. Charles Avenue for the big Bacchus parade that evening.) All that aside from all accounts Mardi Gras ’08 was a much closer return to pre-Katrina levels of both attendance and celebration for the local folks.
Though it seems somewhat discounted as more of a lark than an "official" part of the Mardi Gras season, the season kicked off for us royally with the tongue-in-cheek Krewe du Vieux parade through the Marigny and the French Quarter on Saturday, January 19. There’s something about witnessing a squad of guys dressed as sperm, followed closely behind by a phallus-festooned parade float and led by a smokin’ brass band that’s bound to get you in the spirit! I’d been forewarned that Krewe du Vieux was not to be missed. This was the parade with the most over-the-top and biting political satire of all, and the only parade of the entire Mardi Gras season to employ 18 brass bands — including such outstanding examples of the form as Rebirth Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, and the Hot 8. This was also an excellent taste of nighttime parading and it didn’t take long for that to be a personal preference over the daytime parades.
We were invited that evening to a parade viewing party by Jason Patterson, who books the acts at NOLA’s most vibrant modern jazz club Snug Harbor. Jason and his affable spouse live upstairs above the club and throughout the night a host of parade revelers — some costumed, some not… all fueled merrily by the spirits of the evening, passed through their place, either to gawk at the passing parade on Frenchman Street below from the balcony or as a refueling stop before re-joining the hooting, hollering & "throw" catchers on the parade route.
The "throws" are one of the keys to Mardi Gras. Though Krewe du Vieux was high on hilarity it was not one of the big float-dominated parades; more of a walking/marching parade with guys dressed up in full female regalia, gals dressed up in all manner of garb and plenty of spectator shout-outs. But the "throws" were indeed in evidence. Those ubiquitous Mardi Gras strands of beads are the main "throw", as parade participants toss their booty and bounty to parade watchers along the route, and the catch is the thing. We’re not talking about big ticket items here, the main thrill being in who can make the catches and stack up the booty. Yeah I know, you have to be there.
After an excellent trip to Panama (see earlier post) in the wee hours after Krewe du Vieux (we’re talking 2:30am wake-up call!) it was back to NOLA and back to the Mardi Gras mix. As I said I never really had a bead on the Mardi Gras vibe and was amazed at the sheer number of parades and parties. For roughly ten days there was a parade every night — sometimes more than one — and both daytime and nighttime parades on the weekends. Some of the faves were Muses — the all-women parade where males seemed to receive the same preferential "throws" treatment reserved for females on the other parade routes — Tucks was pretty funny, with mini-toilet plungers as one of the prized "throws" (you hadda be there), and two of the so-called "super" parades (so-called because they employ the biggest floats) Endymion and Zulu.
Zulu is of particular interest because as the social aid & pleasure club’s name implies it is the major and traditional black parade; some will recall that Louis Armstrong, the Heavyweight Champion of New Orleans music, was the Zulu King for the 1949 parade. Zulu was started precisely because of the Jim Crow prohibition of black folks from "rolling" (as the parade route movement is referred) in the other parades. As a result what started out as a spoof or slam on the other parades — black folks "rolling" in blackface — continues to this day, with Zulu also including a share of white folks in blackface.
As I viewed the other parades — with some floats for example populated by crazy looking costumed cats all in greenface, yellowface, purpleface or whatever — I was able to somewhat overcome my initial shock (I knew it was coming, but when the afro bewigged black and white faces on the Zulu rollers came around it was still a shock to the cultural system) by putting the cumulative hilarity of parade participant face painting and all-round masquerading of both the rollers and the spectators in context. And we nabbed two of the prized Zulu "throws" — one black and one gold painted and decorated coconut (and dig the symbolism there as well).
The general parade "rolling" practice appears to be floats sometimes preceeded by marching revelers (one parade had marching skeletons) and followed by high school and college marching bands. And that’s where Krewe du Vieux captured the prize, with their rolling procession of brass bands; not to mention the fact that Krewe du Vieux was the only parade other than Zulu to have a black King & Queen. I found it curious that the Zulu King & Queen were Katrina evacuees still living in Houston. Would it have been more apt to have a Zulu King & Queen who persevered, weathered the storm and proudly returned to NOLA to assist in the recovery? You be the judge…