Mardi Gras (1)
Where? New Orleans, USA
When? February or March
How long? Around 6 weeks
New Orleans has one of the most original, weird, accessible and mind-blowing carnivals of them all. Though the name refers to the entire season, Mardi Gras itself – French for “Fat Tuesday” – is simply the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, bohemian street revels and secret masked balls, all tied up with the city’s Byzantine social, racial and political structures. Much of official Carnival revolves around members-only “krewes”, who, as well as organizing the public parades, hold elite, invitation-only, costume balls. Visitors are more likely to be sucked into unofficial Carnival: shindigs thrown by “alternative” krewes, spontaneous carousing in the narrow old streets of the French Quarter and the neighbouring Faubourg Marigny, and always, everywhere, the city’s famed live music – the best jazz, R&B, funk and wild brass bands you’ll ever dance to.
Mardi Gras, brought by French colonists to New Orleans in the 1700s, has its origins in medieval European carnival. The colony always had a significant black population, however, and gradually the pre-Lenten bacchanal got mixed up with African and Caribbean festival traditions – drumming, street parades and wild costumes. Then, in 1857, a mysterious torch-lit procession, calling itself, bafflingly, the “Mistick Krewe of Comus”, took to the streets, with a parade that was more elaborate than anything yet seen – and very different from the earlier, rowdy street processions, when revellers hurled flour, mud and bricks. The concept of the “krewe”, a secret carnival club, was taken up by New Orleans’ Anglo elite; each krewe elected their own annual king and queen – usually an older business man and a debutante – who, costumed, masked and attended by a make-believe court, reigned over a themed parade and a secret tableau ball. Weird stuff. But it gets weirder. In 1872, out of the blue, newspapers published a portentous announcement heralding the arrival of “Rex, King of Carnival”, and ordering that the city be closed down for the day and handed over to him. On Mardi Gras morning, the masked Rex arrived by riverboat and went on to lead a brilliant parade. Official Carnival wasn’t all good clean fun, however: in post-Civil War New Orleans, the krewes were the realm of white supremacists, and the role of blacks in their grand parades was limited to that of torch carrier, float hauler or band member. In the 1880s, though, groups of black men began to lead their own processions through local neighbourhoods. Zulu, the first official black krewe, appeared in 1909, when, so the story goes, a black man mocked Rex by dancing behind him wearing a tin-can crown. Today, Zulu is one of New Orleans’ biggest krewes, and its parade of black-faced savages in grass skirts is among the most popular of the season. In 1941, the Krewe of Venus was the first female krewe to parade. The 1950s saw the first gay Carnival ball, which was raided by the police, and in 1969 a very different kind of krewe, Bacchus, emerged, with the biggest floats ever, a celebrity king (Danny Kaye), and, in place of the hush-hush ball, a public extravaganza open to anyone who could afford the ticket. So began the era of the super krewes, with members drawn from New Orleans’ new wealth – barred from the gentlemen’s-club network of the old-guard krewes – and parades characterized by expensive, flashy floats. Other super krewes include Orpheus, set up by Harry Connick Jr, whose parade always boasts the 120-foot-long “Leviathan”, with its blinding fibre-optic lights. Carnival is, however, still tangled up with the city’s complex race relations. In 1992, the city government insisted that, in order to be granted a parade licence, all parading krewes confirm their organizations to be open to anyone, regardless of race or religion. While Rex and most of the other krewes agreed, Comus, along with Momus and Proteus, refused, insisting that their membership be kept secret. Though Proteus has since agreed to the statute, neither Momus nor Comus has paraded since 1992, though they continue to stage their elaborate balls – as exclusive and all-white as ever. More recently, the devastating effects that Hurricane Katrina had on the city almost caused the 2006 Mardi Gras to be cancelled, and there are those who would have preferred that it was. But the spirit of New Orleans shone through, and the event went ahead, a symbol – if one were needed – that the city was alive and very much kicking.