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Rhythm-A-Day Blog for February 25, 2020: Mardi Gras

Posted by Wolf Murphy on

Mardi Gras

For Mardi Gras, we are going to learn a little about the Mardi Gras Indians.

Photo ©Wolf Murphy

The Mardi Gras Indians continue a New Orleans based African-American tradition with one core intention, to remember and honor the Indians that helped displaced Africans in their struggle to reclaim their freedom. This music is definitely one of the great Rhythms of Resistance, one birthed in the United States.

In addition to this central focus, there is also awareness of the need to remember the African-American ancestors who kept African tradition and culture alive in the time of slavery.

The Mardi Gras Indians create elaborate costumes, working all year preparing for Mardi Gras, and then parade along "non-officially sanctioned routes" (primarily in African American neighborhoods), playing polyrhythmic percussion music and chanting. Their costumes are, anachronistically, based in part on Plains Indians regalia (one story has it that the inspiration for this came from Wild Bill's Travelling Wild West Show), but the intention to honor the local tribes that welcomed runaway slaves remains the driving force behind the commemmoration.

All of this evolved in a historical setting that offered far more tolerance for slaves to maintain at least some connection with their own cultural traditions. While most of the South was very strict in limiting the slaves' opportunities to congregate, and restrictive of any behavior that maintained cultural continuity with their African roots, Congo Square was different—it permitted Africans to gather and drum every Sunday! Given the highly integrated relationship between African drumming and African religion, the tolerance of the one facilitated the survival of the other.

In these values we find several factors that inform the Mardi Gras Indian traditions (ritual as a bridge between humans, respect for ancestors and elders, etc.). Masking and parading to proclaim cultural pride, and to publically celebrate the memory of the Native Americans who assisted their ancestors, is a very African act at heart.

Photo ©Wolf Murphy

It is very interesting that the costuming is referred to as "Masking as Indian," viewed in the context of African cultures where a "Mask" refers not only to the physical mask, but also implies a social event with rhythms, dances, costuming, and the presence of the spirit or energy that the mask represents and embodies. It is telling that this way of referring to the entire occasion surrounding the costuming as "masking" has lasted, even though as a rule the costumes do not involve facial masks.

These elements of pride in one's ancestral and evolving culture, defi ance in the face of dehumanizing oppression and disenfranchisement, and retention of a unique artistic and musical lineage are embodied in many of the chants and lyrics of the Mardi Gras Indian repertoire:

"The Indians’ anthem, “My Indian Red,” in which the Chief presents the various members of the tribe over various verses, has as its refrain:

'We won’t bow down (we won’t bow down)
Down on the ground (Th at dirty ground)
Oh how I love to hear them call My Indian Red.'

We won’t bow down is the key phrase, because what the Indians do, walking the streets of their neighborhoods without getting anyone’s permission to do so, is understood as a statement of black manhood, of the community’s will to live, and of resistance to the community’s oppression and potential erasure."

—, New Orleans: A Brief Musical Excursion
Part 4. Mardi Gras Indians (online) 

Photo ©Wolf Murphy

Today we are going to  play some of the basic cadences that provide the structure for the Mardi Gras Indian music. Note: these are the cadences—where the notes fall on the count—so they are all notated merely as tones. As you practice these, begin playing with changing the voicing, sticking to the cadence but substituting bass notes or slaps where you feel it. This is a great first baby step towards improvisation!

Today's Video Lesson

If you are interested in learning (a lot) more, here is a link to Alan Lomax's "Jazz Parades," a documentary covering parading in New Orleans, focusing a lot on the Mardi Gras Indians. At about 32:04, there's a clip of a rehearsal; on the stoop of a house; note the instrumentation!

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