Monday, June 6, 2011

episode 17: francophonic

Its Carnival Time on Treme this week and we get an eyeful of New Orleans delights. There are the massive parades thrown by Mardi Gras krewes, such as Rex, the exclusive club with elite members along the lines of Davis' dad; Zulu, the historically black krewe that let Senor Hidalgo in to throw a few coconuts; and Muses, the all-female krewe with the glorious heels. These parades are moved along by the school marching bands, such as the St. Augustine "Marching 100" and the mighty O. Perry Walker Chargers. And on Mardi Gras day, the parades are sometimes interrupted by rogue Mardi Gras Indian tribes: African Americans dressed in American Indian-themed "suits" who march through the city streets, singing chants and confronting other tribes.

These are local traditions with deep roots, some with precedents in Africa and the Caribbean and others that originated with Louisiana's French founders. Carnival is a European Catholic tradition that marks the arrival of Spring and is associated with harvest and fertility. Mardi Gras in New Orleans (and Mobile, AL) developed it's own identity as an urban New World variant, and Louisiana has another distinct variant out in Cajun country - courir de Mardi Gras - that Annie checked out ona roadt trip with her musical muse Harley (Steve Earle).

Though the Cajuns descended from the French as well, they came to Louisiana through a more circuitous route, having been exiled from Acadia in the Canadian maritime provinces. So they have their Mardi Gras, too, but it's very different: there are no spectacular parade floats or black men running around in feathered suits, instead there are Cajuns wearing pointy hats, riding through the country on horses and flatbed trucks, collecting ingredients for a communal gumbo. (Hence the live chickens.) They might drink a little, too, so it's not like a its world apart from New Orleans Mardi Gras.

The music is VERY different from New Orleans. Cajun music is all fiddles and accordions and in the 20th century became heavily influenced by country music. Tradition dances such as the waltz and two-step, sung in French, were carried forward by the likes of Dennis McGee, who was treated to a graveside serenade by the new-school torch-bearers in the Pine Leaf Boys. Black Creole musicians in Southwest Louisiana also have their own traditional music, called Zydeco, that retains the accordion and the French language but otherwise goes off into the funkier directions of R&B and (more recently) hip-hop.

All these French folks spread out across South Louisiana with their own musical, Mardi Gras, and culinary traditions - it gets confusing. I, myself, don't know much about Cajun history that's not included in the song 'Acadian Driftwood' by The Band. And New Orleanians get territorial when tourists come to town looking for cajun music or blackened redfish, since the urban and rural traditions were mostly separate until cajuns started migrating to the city a couple generations ago. They brought crawfish with them - thank you kindly! - but, otherwise, things remain pretty much distinct, so it makes sense that Annie and her fiddle and Harley with his acoustic guitar would feel at home out in the country.

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