All On A Mardi Gras Day

This picture evokes the spirit of Mardi Gras. I was alone living in New Orleans waiting for my volunteering to begin and enjoying the roller-coaster that is Mardi Gras- the celebration that shakes the city on it’s head and allows the good stuff to bubble to the top.

The morning of Mardi Gras day, myself and my friend Carl (over visiting from London) arose before 8am (unheard of) and groggily made our way down to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the historical Treme neighbourhood where we heard the action was. We waited and saw people sashaying past in fancy costumes, the whole city alight with colour, reverie and masquerade. Respectable doctors becoming pirates for the day, lawyers donning bondage gear and a couple dressed as mum and dad Shrimp had dressed their 6 month old as a baby shrimp and were wheeling him along in a wheelbarrow (still to this day my favourite). The detail and sheer lengths that people had gone to reflected the passion and excitement this day represented.

We saw the bone gang on stilts dressed in black and white…a taster of the surreal to come.

Then they appeared. Feathered visions cascading down the street almost gliding….the feathers in full flume with vigour and prowess very much like peacocks but instead these were ordinary men- truck drivers, roofers and garbage men elevated to the position of representing their ‘tribe’ or community; transformed and living out a tradition that spreads back nearly 100 years. Every year donning a ‘new suit’ and meeting up with other tribes in a ‘face off’ somewhere between fighting and dancing.

The Mardi Gras Indians represent a mythical world, steeped in history and local culture. No-one is exactly sure where the tradition of dressing as Mardi Gras Indians came from, legend has it some slaves escaped, were taken in by native American Indians and so adopted some of their culture and customs. 

This is a picture of a Wild Man- a person who steps ahead of the Big Chief and checks for other gangs or signs of danger. I remember him so clearly. He paused and literally spread his wings- his arms coming up on either side of him as he basked in the sun. “Please Sir, could I trouble you for a photo?” I was trying simultaneously not to wince and also to disguise my East London accent so very out of place in this photo…

A crash of drums and clatter of the tambourine as the rest of the tribe appeared and the heralded the arrival of the Big Chief. “Oomba way tu way packy way…let’s go get em!” the dance and blending of colours, textures and tones as they began to dance for 10 minutes at a time is something that I will never forget.

Rewind 6 months and I was in London thinking, do I really want to be part of this? Isn’t it just an excuse to dress up and get loaded on your favourite poison (alcohol, drugs, vice)? A wise woman instead advised me that it’s so much more, while it is a celebration of debauched carry-on ‘it’s also a community festival, one that means you are part of a community, celebrations go on down small back streets, everyone’s welcome and the music is fantastic”

We decided to indulge the hazy headiness of Bourbon St, saw the gay ‘Jesus’ clad in very small white y-fronts with a gold trim, cowboy hat and boots and not very much else. We ran virtually screaming to take refuge from this after the Indian finery we had just seen…we wanted more and in the distance we saw a spray painted gold statue of a Roman God and he was playing the tuba, we knew were onto something and we followed him onto a street that would become the mythical Frenchmen Street…see you next time!