It's Carnival Time On The SongCircle

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Fri, 02/02/2018 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm
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Mardi Gras music and the culture of Louisiana

Hey now, Phil G here; this Friday, February 2, I will be joined by members of the Mysti Krewe of Nimbus, Portland’s Mardi Gras Krewe and Social Pleasure Club, to discuss upcoming events, including a Mardi Gras Ball and a Parade on Mardi Gras Day.

There will be plenty of Louisiana music and we will also be joined by local singer Karen Lovely, who will talk about her upcoming performances.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

First off, I feel terrible that I upset someone by playing Big Chief on the show. The last thing I ever want to do is cause that kind of upset; it's really torn me up and I've done a lot of thinking about it.
 
I played the song out of respect for a New Orleans tradition, not thinking at all about how someone who wasn't versed in that tradition would respond. For that I am deeply sorry (actually horrified) that I would cause anyone anguish and will do my best to make amends.
 
I spoke with Dwayne Breashears, who was Program Director at WWOZ for 20 years. Dwayne told me that Big Chief is "part of the tremendous culture of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans," and he said "the only complaint we ever received about the song was 'please, we've heard it enough already.'"
 
The song was written by Earl King and originally recorded by Henry Byrd (aka Professor Longhair). It has become a staple of Carnival time music in New Orleans, especially among the Mardi Gras Indians.
 
Here is a little bit about the history of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans:

"Traditional Mardi Gras organizations form a "krewe." A krewe often names their parade after a particular Roman or Greek mythological hero or god. The ranking structure of a Mardi Gras Krewe is a parody of royalty: King, Queen, Dukes, Knights and Captains, or some variation of that theme. Many of the more established krewes allow membership by invitation only.

Few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. The black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their krewes are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang.

The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. They have never forgotten this support."

(source: http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/mardigrasindians.html)

"Later, Jim Crow laws barred the Mardi Gras Indian tribes from parading with mainstream Carnival krewes on Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue, so they stayed within their neighborhoods and became solidified.

  As the Indians marched in the street, they would encounter other tribes competing for territory. In the early years, the confrontations could get tense and violent, but those practices changed, due largely to the leadership of Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. Montana died in 2005 while addressing the City Council about allegations of police harassment of Indians.

(A side note about Tootie, the cops (mostly white cops) were hassling the Indians on St Joseph's Day (that's the other day the Indians come out and parade) in 2005. Tootie was testifying to the city council about the harassment when he had a heart attack and died in the council chambers in june of 2005. All of this and more is in the move "Tootie's Last Suit"; review here: https://www.popmatters.com/154961-tooties-last-suit-looks-at-mardi-gras-black-indian-krewes-2495881687.html)

  There are 30 to 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes of various sizes in New Orleans. Each tribe has a "big chief" and one or two (second and third) other chiefs. The big chief must know how to design and sew a fabulous costume, sing, dance and lead his tribe. Each chief has a queen. A "trail chief" protects the big chief from the rear flank and a "spy boy" walks ahead of the tribe and searches for rival tribes. If he finds a rival tribe on the streets, the spy boy relays the information to the "flag boy," who informs the tribe. A tribe member called a "wild man" then clears a path for his big chief and makes room for chiefs of the two tribes to begin their performances."

(source: https://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/what-are-the-mardi-gras-indians-how-many-are-there-and-what-is-their-history/Content?oid=2316601)

"They would secretly gather to sing and chant in the ancient tribal tradition. They worked all year long to create colorful suits bedecked with intricate hand beading, false gems and decorative feathers. They would also craft matching accessories such as staffs, shields, and tribal flags.

On Mardi Gras day, the police were often kept busy protecting the tourist-focused French Quarter. So the Mardi Gras Indians would take to the streets of their neighborhoods to strut their stuff and honor the Indians who had helped them obtain their freedom.

The Mardi Gras Indians first entered American pop culture consciousness in 1965. That’s when New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups had a hit with “Iko Iko” (a cover of 1953’s “Jock-A-Mo,” by Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters).

The lyrics described a quintessential collision between two tribes, who exchange taunting chants: “My flag boy and your flag boy were sittin’ by the fire. My flag boy told your flag boy, ‘I’m gonna set your flag on fire.’

But powerful Big Chiefs such as including Bo Dollis (Wild Magnolias), Donald Harrison Sr. (Guardians of the Flame), and Tootie Montana (Yellow Pocahontas) came together in the ’70s and put an end to the violence. Together, they moved this iconic African-American tradition into the New Orleans mainstream.

Since then, tribal encounters have become a friendly form of competition based on dancing, singing, and who could make the prettiest suit."

(source: https://greenglobaltravel.com/mardi-gras-indians-new-orleans-photo-gallery/)
 
Here is a link to a trailer for a movie about, among things Mardi Gras Indians https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_w129_tREo

 And a film about the Mardi Gras Indians ""We Won't Bow Down"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRuuxzX563c
https://www.facebook.com/We-Wont-Bow-Down-78553559219/
 
All of this was the spirit that I was trying to capture when I played "Big Chief." Yes, I failed to do due diligence with the lyrics; I will try to not make that mistake again.

Sincerely, Phil G

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Episode Playlist

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