Parading Through Mardi Gras Music

    It’s about seventy degrees outside, but thank God it’s cloudy and breezy. It prevents the intersection of Canal and Rampart from feeling too warm and– probably more importantly– too humid. Throngs of us litter Rampart St., and the crowd disappears to the northeast, forming the eastern border of New Orleans’ famous French Quarter. The Mardi Gras parade route curves up Canal, the Quarter’s southern border, and even more people fade behind the buildings there.

    It’s ten in the morning. I’m waiting for the Zulu Mardi Gras parade to start.

    * * *

    At this point, in many ways, Mardi Gras is both self-perpetuating and self-parodying. Self-perpetuating because as amazing and theatrical as the wild parades are, even without them I get the sense that Bourbon St. would be flooded with humanity prior to every Ash Wednesday. Self-parodying because the now cliché bargain of boobs for beads is just as common as any depiction you’ve ever seen, and the transaction is so assumed that it’s almost tedious.

    * * *

    It’s stupid obvious how important music is to the city of New Orleans. Half of the businesses– bars, gift shops, actual music venues– feature the word “jazz” or “brass” or something analogous in their names. The bars along Bourbon St. and its off-shoots all squelch tasteful Dixieland if they’re not playing Top 40 hip-hop and R&B. But as time passes and we wait for the parade to start, it becomes apparent that music is integrated into Mardi Gras and New Orleans in other ways.

    About a half a block along Rampart, a trio of guys set up a speaker, a computer, and a microphone. The computer starts playing something, and one of the trio takes the mic and starts rapping. At our distance, I can’t hear much more than a generic boom bap beat, and the rapper’s words are muffled and indecipherable, but the crowd around them are dancing. They’re doing something right.

    Shortly, directly across the street, a tent is erected. Because the tent is obscured by the people on the other side of the street– I can’t say for certain– but it seems like it’s a satellite for a local radio station. They begin playing music, and you can hear Beyonce and Ludacris and even “Cupid Shuffle.” Again, it’s obscured, but I can definitely see a group of people carve out a dance floor for themselves, dancing to “Cupid Shuffle.”

    This is before the parade starts.

    * * *

    Unless you’re staying for the entire weekend, it’s impossible to experience everything that Mardi Gras offers. You can rent out the balconies, which seem to inexplicably make your beads more desirable, and gives you an amazing, voyeuristic vantage point. The bars of the French Quarter don’t close, so if you play your day right, you can spend the entire night into the dawn drinking. And there are the two different parades, the Zulu and the Rex, which each give you a different view of New Orleans, both past and current.

    * * *

    I’m at the Zulu parade, due to nothing more than dumb luck. It’s not until later, wandering the streets for something to eat, that I even see the Rex parade. There’s more pageantry involved to the older Rex parade I pass by, with women in their sixties sitting in stands and wearing broad-rimmed Southern belle hats, and immaculately orchestrated and choreographed floats.

    A cop car rolls down Rampart, followed shortly by a small group of musicians carrying a variety of brass instruments. The parade is starting. With what must be a silent count off, the group begins playing, a rollicking Dixieland style number. Not everybody, but a good number of people start dancing and clapping along, breaking into applause when the band ends their short piece and the parade starts in earnest.

    As the parade continues, turning down Canal St. and retreating down Rampart, it becomes apparent that marching bands a large part of the Zulu parade. These aren’t professionals, but instead local high school students. The music they play straddles classic marching band styles and classic Louisiana styles, the melodies feel loose and free, and the conductors direct their bands with wide, warm gestures. Between pieces, drum lines push out complex rhythms. And each band has their own dance team, with routines of urban dance moves.

    In telling contrast, the music of the Rex parade is more stately; typical marching band fare in the vein of John Philip Sousa. The rhythms are straighter, and the dancing is non-existent.

    * * *

    The difference between the two is a reflection of New Orleans history, past and present. The original Rex half of Mardi Gras was conceived in the late 1800s in response to an incoming visit of a foreign royal. The city had no monarchy, so the upscale white citizens of the community elected a king for the day to greet the dignitary. A few years later, the black and Creole community, having been ostracized from this event, started a parodic version of the Rex parade and called it the Zulu parade.

    * * *

    Even now, the way that the parades occur is a reflection of that classic dichotomy. The Rex parade is more fanciful, held in a more upscale part of town. Ladders and stands are erected along that parade route and encroach on the road, leaving little room for passers by. For the Zulu parade, people press up against the barricades and, when the barricades end, flood the streets.

    I join them, getting into the scrum and working for beads and coconuts and doubloons and even toys and umbrellas (it’s expected to rain later). There’s a communal feeling to the whole thing, and it’s the music that truly draws it together. The free rhythms, the dancing in the streets, the rappers setting up impromptu shows on the corner, they bring us together more so than the matching beads we’re all wearing.

    No offense to the Rex parade, which is entertaining and equally beautiful, but the straight-laced style of the music, the pomp and circumstance, creates a distance between the people in the stands that separates them more than the space between stadium seats or individual ladders.

    * * *

    Every year, the Zulu and the Reks nominate their own kings, again a reflection of that history. Probably the most famous of either of these is the Zulu king of 1949, a New Orleans jazz trumpeter named Louis Armstrong.

    The naming of Armstrong as a Mardi Gras king continues to be appropriate. As I leave, the last strains of New Orleans music I hear is Satchmo’s take on “Mack the Knife.”

    Someone’s sneakin’ ’round the corner… is that someone Mack the Knife?