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Mardi Gras and other New Orleans festivals

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New Orleans’s carnival season – which starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, and runs for the six weeks or so until Ash Wednesday – is unlike any other in the world. Though the name is used to define the entire season, Mardi Gras itself, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is simply the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, street revels and masked balls, all inextricably tied up with the city’s labyrinthine social, racial and political structures. Mardi Gras was introduced to New Orleans in the 1740s, when French colonists brought over the European custom, established since medieval times, of marking the imminence of Lent with masking and feasting. Their slaves, meanwhile, continued to celebrate African and Caribbean festival traditions, based on musical rituals, masking and elaborate costumes, and the three eventually fused. From early days carnival was known for cavorting, outrageous costumes, drinking and general bacchanalia – and little has changed. However, although it has become the busiest tourist season, when the city is invaded by millions, Mardi Gras has always been, above all, a party that New Orleanians throw for themselves. Visitors are wooed, welcomed and shown the time of their lives, but without them carnival would reel on regardless.

Official carnival took its current form in 1857, with the appearance of a stately moonlit procession calling itself the “Krewe of Comus, Merrie Monarch of Mirth”. Initiated by a group of Anglo-Americans, the concept of the “krewes”, or secret carnival clubs, was taken up enthusiastically by the New Orleans aristocracy, many of them white supremacists who, after the Civil War, used their satirical float designs and the shroud of secrecy to mock and undermine Reconstruction. Nowadays about fifty official krewes equip colourful floats, leading huge processions with different, often mythical, themes. Each is reigned over by a King and Queen (generally an older, politically powerful man and a debutante), who go on to preside over the krewes’ closed, masked balls. There are women-only krewes, “super krewes”, with members drawn from the city’s new wealth (barred from making inroads into the gentlemen’s-club network of the old-guard krewes), and important black groups. The best known and most important of these is Zulu, established in 1909 when a black man mocked Rex, King of Carnival, by dancing behind his float with a tin can on his head; today the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning is one of the most popular of the season. There are also many alternative, or unofficial krewes, including the anarchic Krewe du Vieux (from Vieux Carré, another term for the French Quarter), whose irreverent parade and “ball” (a polite term for a wild party, open to all) is a blast. The gay community plays a major part in Mardi Gras, particularly in the French Quarter, where the streets teem with strutting drag divas. And then there’s the parade of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, made up of dogs, hundreds of whom, during what is surely the campest parade of the season, can be seen trotting proudly through the French Quarter all spiffed up on some spurious theme.

Tourists are less likely to witness the Mardi Gras Indians, African-American groups who, in their local neighbourhoods, organize themselves into “tribes” and, dressed in fabulous beaded and feathered costumes, sewed themselves over the previous year, gather on Mardi Gras morning to compete in chanting and dancing. Made up of poor black men, many of whom lost their homes in the flooding, this is the Mardi Gras group that has been most diminished by the devastation of Katrina; their continued existence against the odds is testament to their cultural importance and the sacred importance of their rituals. For a chance of seeing the Indians, head to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé on Mardi Gras morning; this is also the meeting place for other black Mardi Gras groups including the “skeleton” gangs, who don bloody butcher’s aprons and “wake the day” at dawn by beating bones on drums, and the Baby Dolls, grown women frolicking around in silky bonnets and bloomers.

Another New Orleans Mardi Gras ritual is the flinging of “throws” from the parade floats. Teasing masked krewe members scatter beads, beakers and doubloons (toy coins) into the crowds, who beg, plead and scream for them. Even outside the parades, tourists embark upon a frantic bead-bartering frenzy, which has given rise to the famed “Show Your Tits!” phenomenon – women pulling up their shirts in exchange for strings of beads and roars of boozy approval from the goggling mobs. Anyone keen to see the show should head for Bourbon Street.

The two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are filled with processions, parties and balls, but excitement reaches fever pitch on Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. Some of the city’s best musicians play at Zulu’s free party in Woldenberg Park, which climaxes at 5pm with the arrival of the King and Queen by boat. Following this, you can head to the Plaza d’España, where, in a formal ceremony unchanged for over a century, the mayor hands the city to Rex, King of Carnival. The party continues with more live music and fireworks, after which people head off to watch the big Orpheus parade, or start a frenzied evening of clubbing. Most clubs are still hopping well into Mardi Gras morning.

The fun starts early on Mardi Gras day, with walking clubs striding through uptown accompanied by raucous jazz on their ritualized bar crawls, and the Skeletons gathering in Tremé. Zulu’s big parade, in theory, sets off at 8.30am (but can be as much as two hours late), followed by Rex. Across town, the Indians are gathering for their sacred Mardi Gras rituals, while the arty St Ann walking parade sets off from the Bywater to arrive in the Faubourg at around 11am. Anyone is welcome to join them, as long as they are wearing something creative and/or surreal. The gay costume competition known as the Bourbon Street awards gets going at noon in the Quarter, while hipsters head back to the Faubourg, where Frenchmen Street is ablaze with bizarrely costumed carousers. The fun continues until midnight, when a siren wail heralds the arrival of a cavalcade of mounted police that sweeps through Bourbon Street and declares through megaphones that Mardi Gras is officially over. Like all good Catholic cities, New Orleans takes carnival very seriously. Midnight marks the onset of Lent, when repentance can begin.

Other New Orleans festivals

St Joseph’s Day

(March 19). Sicilian saint’s day, at the midpoint of Lent. Altars of food, groaning with bread, fig cakes and stuffed artichokes, are erected in churches all around town, including St Louis Cathedral, and there’s a parade. The Sunday closest to St Joseph’s (“Super Sunday”) is the only time outside Mardi Gras that the Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets.

French Quarter Festival

(early April). Superb free three-day music festival that rivals Jazz Fest for the quality and variety of music – and food – on offer. w http://www.fqfi.org.

Jazz Fest

(two weekends, Fri–Sun & Thurs–Sun, end April/early May). Enormous festival at the Fairgrounds Race Track, Mid-City, with stages hosting jazz, R&B, gospel, African, Caribbean, Cajun, blues and more, with evening performances in clubs all over town. Also features crafts and phenomenal food stands. w http://www.nojazzfest.com.

Satchmo SummerFest

(end July/early Aug). Enjoyable three-day festival, celebrating Louis Armstrong, in the Quarter. Includes talks, local jazz and brass bands, food stalls, Second Lines and a jazz mass at St Augustine’s Church.w http://www.fqfi.org.

Southern Decadence

(six days around Labor Day weekend). Huge gay extravaganza, bringing around 100,000 party animals to the Quarter and the Faubourg, with a costume parade of thousands on the Sunday afternoon. w http://www.southerndecadence.net.

Halloween

(Oct 31). Thanks to its long-held obsession with all things morbid, and the local passion for dressing up, New Orleans is a fabulous place to spend Halloween, with haunted houses, costume competitions, ghost tours and parades all over town.

Voodoo Fest

(end Oct). Three-day rock festival held in City Park with 150 acts – from Eminem via The Pogues to Duran Duran and the New York Dolls – plus an eclectic span of local acts performing to a mixed, high-spirited, Halloween-costumed crowd. w http://www.thevoodooexperience.com.

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