Academic journal article MELUS

The Mardi Gras Indian Song Cycle: A Heroic Tradition

Academic journal article MELUS

The Mardi Gras Indian Song Cycle: A Heroic Tradition

Article excerpt

The original function of Mardi Gras was to mark Fat Tuesday, the day of feasting and pleasure immediately followed by the abstinence of Lent. Carnival (from Latin, meantime, "farewell to meat") worked to unify and renew the community by aligning it with cosmic time and sacred myth - in this case, the Easter story. Masking in carnival, the merrymaking community also let off steam by temporarily breaking tabus and celebrating the riotous life of the senses. Sacred and secular impulses fused in a resplendent explosion of parade, costume, food and song.

Mardi Gras song cycles within the oral tradition continue to fulfill these sacred and secular functions today. Within this music both rural and urban communities in Louisiana participate in a universal myth first outlined by Van Gennep in 1909 as a "rite de passage" invoking the stages of setting forth, confronting the unknown, and returning with new glory. Mardi Gras songs dramatize high points - symbolic combats - in an archetypal heroic pattern described by Raglan, Propp, Campbell, de Vries, and others.(1)

Urban New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian songs are one of two kinds of traditional musics played specifically for that festival. The other kind is the song associated with the rural "courir de Mardi Gras" found in the prairie regions of largely francophone southwest Louisiana. These urban and rural texts are quite different in origin, sound, and style - the rural white Cajun Mardi Gras song from Mamou, for example, summons up a haunting medieval realm of buskers and harlequins, while the urban Indians' lively syncopated songs emanate from the Afro-Caribbean world. This paper dwells on the more heroic urban Mardi Gras Indian songs but glances at the rural song cycle to show underlying heroic parallels.

The most elaborate and dynamic Mardi Gras musical tradition is undoubtedly found among urban New Orleans blacks. The music of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes specifically expresses the community in Central City, the black working-class area of New Orleans. Mardi Gras Indian music and its social context have been treated in considerable detail elsewhere.(2) It is beyond the scope of the present essay to provide a complete discussion of the Mardi Gras Indians. The guiding focus is, rather, on the heroic structure found in Mardi Gras music. The following general remarks cannot do justice to the scope and variety of Mardi Gras Indian carnival; they are offered to help the reader who may not be familiar with Mardi Gras Indians.

Mardi Gras Indian tribes first appeared in New Orleans in the 1880s; at present there are at least twelve such tribes (Spitzer 414), and perhaps as many as thirty (Blank, "Always for Pleasure" typescript, 7). The nucleus of each Indian tribe involves a group of from fifteen to thirty working class black males of Afro-American descent, with some Native-American and Euro-American racial admixture. Many more men are involved in varying degrees: as participants in past years, as members of neighborhood benevolent associations that support a given tribe, and as helpers in the music and drinking that accompany tribe meetings. The tribe is further augmented as Mardi Gras approaches by friends and neighbors, including women, who meet at the neighborhood bar where tribes gather to practice their music.

Though it takes place on only one day, Mardi Gras is also a cyclical spirit that lasts year round. Indians begin preparations for the next Mardi Gras as soon as the last Mardi Gras is over, gathering expensive materials for the costumes and painstakingly sewing them. Throughout the year the tribe meets in private homes, often at the chief's house, to sew elaborate, hand-made feathered and beaded costumes based on the Plains Indian suit and war bonnet (Draper 130). Each individual designs and hand sews his own costume. At these friendly, informal sewing sessions the Indians swap stories about previous carnivals, masking Indian, music, parade signals, and much more. …

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