As they had for decades, [brass bands] provided the music for the endless cycle of dances and parades in New Orleans, popularizing the startling fusion of influences and celebration that came to be hails as the only original art form created in America. It would be hyperbole, if not false, to name jazz a child of Carnival, however the joyous license of the music owes more than a passing acquaintance to the liberties of Mardi Gras and a population long-accustomed to dancing in the streets
The organizations that create floats for the Carnival parades are called Krewes. For instance, the people who ride the Zulu floats are called the Krewe of Zulu. The riders for the Rex floats are called the Krewe of Rex. In New Orleans, there is a hierarchy when it comes to Krewes. Throughout the weekends leading up to Mardi Gras, there are many parades that travel through different parts of the city. Some of them are relatively young or small but lots of fun, nonetheless. One of my personal favorites is the Krewe of Barkus. Others Krewes are humungous and have a long standing history with the city. There's Bacchus (a infamously raucous Krewe) and Orpheus (I have family in this one) and Endymion and Iris (a women-only Krewe with over 1000 members) and Zeus (celebrating their 50th anniversary this year).
When it comes to the top of the hierarchy the creme de la creme Krewes parade on Mardi Gras day. While they are certainly not the only ones, the hands-down most important ones are Zulu and Rex. I could derail this entire list by elaborating on these two organizations. They represent the essence of Mardi Gras. As Zulu and Rex go, so goes the city of New Orleans. Being a member of one of these Krewes means you are among the aristocracy of New Orleanian culture. On Mardi Gras day, the local newspaper devotes it's front pages to interviews with the King and Queen of each of these two Krewes. No one else receives that honor, not even President Bush got that sort of attention when he visited.
Brass Bands: Almost every musician in New Orleans got their start in a brass band. These groups can range from four or five members to 15 or more for the larger ones. They are the ultimate keepers of our Jazz music traditions in New Orleans. Brass bands perform many different functions within the community. You can sometimes catch them playing gigs at local clubs or accompanying a "tribe" full of wild Mardi Gras indians but that's not the only place they can be found. They can be hired to perform at birthday parties or weddings but their most important role is the services they provide for the dead.
In New Orleans, we have a funerary tradition that can be found no place else on the face of the earth. A jazz funeral is the last and finest way of showing respect for the dead. It's an honor reserved for important political figures, members of social aid & pleasure clubs, and the city's musicians themselves. I remember when my brother performed in the brass band that played for Doc Cheatam. He was especially affected by the death of the Doc because he'd had the honor of playing a gig with Cheatam at the JazzFest just a couple of months earlier. The Doc died eleven days before his 92nd birthday and the city mourned his loss according to our traditions.
While the average folks usually can't afford the sort of jazz funeral that the mayors and the Carnival royalty receive, even in this disproportionately-poor city, poor people can provide their dead loved one with the proper send-off for only a few hundred dollars. For that price, the brass band will come out and (after the minister/priest's prayer) play the saddest, sweetest jazz dirges you've ever heard. Then, after all have had time to openly express their grief, the band slowly picks up the tempo and the rejoicing begins. They belt out tune after tune filled with music designed to celebrate the deceased person's ascent into the heavens. The dancing that accompanies this music is referred to as "second-lining". Courtesy also dictates that you at offer them some food and drink after they finish playing.
A lot of brass bands make almost nothing off of these gigs yet they keep the prices low enough that even those in the poorest communities can afford to hire them. On more than one occasion, I've seen people in the housing projects pool their funds and provide a dead resident's family with the money they need to hire the brass band. But don't think that means they don't know the true monetary worth of their services. When you see a brass band marching with a parade during Carnival, performing their particularly boisterous form of jazz with its joyous call-and-response elements, just know that they are smiling because they'll have a nice chunk of change jingling in their pockets by the end of the night.
Mardi Gras Indians:
Of all the groups you may be fortunate enough to see during Carnival, the Mardi Gras Indians are the least understood by outsiders. I belong to an online group for Native Americans (NAs) and, a few years ago, one of the 24-hour news stations showed some footage of the Mardi Gras Indians. The next day, some members of the NA group logged on and left several scathing comments about how these black people were trying to mockingly imitate their culture. If I wasn't from here and I saw just a few pictures of them, I am sure I'd have been inclined to believe the same thing because this country has a history of appropriating elements of NA culture in order to create crude caricatures for the enjoyment of non-NA's. However, the Mardi Gras Indians are an entirely different case.
The origin of these groups comes from the period in history where slavery existed in New Orleans. The French first attempted to use the NAs as slaves but when that proved unsuccessful, they switched to kidnapping people from western Africa and using them as slaves. Because the Africans were on unfamiliar territory, they could not escape from slavery as easily as the NAs that the French originally tried to capture.
These Africans were forced to work for their "owners"--I refuse to go along with the notion that they ANYONE can ever truly own another human being--every day except for Sundays. On Sundays, the slaves were allowed to go and sell their wares (that they somehow managed to produce in their spare time) at a place called Congo Square. This area quickly became an place where the African slaves had the opportunity to congregate and freely engage in traditional dancing, singing and religious rituals.
Congo Square was located in what had been, prior to colonization by the French, the territory of several different NA tribes. Even after the French came along, the NA tribes continued to use these prime hunting and fishing grounds as they had during centuries before. As a result, the NAs and Africans became familiar with one another and began to exchange goods as well as ideas for getting rid of the rightfully-hated French colonizers.
Their relationship proved to be very fruitful. Many Africans who escaped from their French "owners" managed to find refuge in the NA colonies. Because the NAs knew the territory better than them, the French were often disinclined to go venture far beyond their own enclaves. Over time, the NA and African populations became intertwined through marriage and treaties. Not surprisingly, both groups incorporated customs that they learned from each other forming a distinct culture that was both African AND NA. The Mardi Gras Indians are a product of that shared culture.
Today, a relatively small group of New Orleanians, most of whom are the offspring of NA and African marriages, carry on the traditions handed down to them from those original alliances. Each year they put in hundreds of hours of work creating regalia to be worn during Carnival (and St. Joseph's Day aka Super Sunday).
The suits are completely handmade. That means each of those THOUSANDS of seed beads were put into place using a needle and thread in someone's hands--no outsourcing. Just buying the supplies requires thousands of dollars. This is a major sacrifice for those in a group that is among the poorest communities in New Orleans. And if you're thinking that this is just an initial investment, you're wrong. Tradition dictates that the Indians create new regalia each year and that the suit from the year before be completely disassembled. The work put into making it is as much a part of the tradition as the Mardi Gras day performances.
Can you imagine wearing one of these elaborate creations? I don't think most people fully realize what a feat it is for the Mardi Gras indians to even walk in these suits. Each one weighs in excess of a hundred pounds. Now consider the fact that the Indians wear them while dancing for two or three miles and you may begin to understand what a commitment it takes to keep this tradition alive.