Mardi Gras Indians and the music of Mardi Gras

Most people would be surprised to learn that New Orleans rhythm and blues has strong Indian roots.

Tribes called the Wild Magnolias, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Eagles, Yellow Pocohontas and Ninth Ward Hunters may draw a blank at the Department of the Interior, but they rule the streets of New Orleans during Carnival.

Known since the 1800s as the "Mardi Gras Indians," the marching clubs merge African traditions with lore of the Native Americans, for whom they have a strong affinity. They are famous for their dazzling costumes - decked with thousands of dollars worth of feathers and beads - and powerful music.

"Street music was the root of all the songs that got to be known as New Orleans rhythm and blues," said George Porter Jr., bassist for the Meters and leader of Running Pardners.

And some of the mightiest sounds around sprang from the improvised tom-toms of the Mardi Gras Indians.

"For 'Iko Iko' and 'Hey Pocky Way,' " Porter said, "the rhythm came from tambourines and cowbells and bottles - whatever they could find to beat on.

"The songs that Professor Longhair and Al Johnson did were based on that jungle/Indian feeling. The rhythm came from that street beat and (the professional musicians) added the chord changes to it."

The lyrics draw on another tradition shared by both Africans and Native Americans - elaborate call-and-response chants.

"Usually the chief sings a line and the tribe answers," Porter said. "They chant about things going on in the community. 'Brother John' was about one of their brothers who was killed coming out of a barroom - there's lots of different versions of that one. 'Meet Me Boys On the Battlefront' - that's about going to a fight."

A bloody history

"When we were kids, the Indians used to do a lot of fighting," Porter said. "It wasn't always a safe place to be, so we weren't allowed to go around the Indians.

"It used to be coordinated so (competing tribes) passed at different times and never met. But when they did . . . "

Would the spectators stand back and watch the battle?

"Oh no," Porter said. "Everybody ran for cover."

The spectacular turf wars - sometimes waged with real guns and hatchets - are a local legend. The violent conflicts have since given way to so-called "confrontations" that are an informal contest for "prettiest" costume. The old blood still boils, though, and these seemingly benign competitions can turn violent at the drop of a hat.

"Now when they meet up they mostly just sing at each other," Porter said. "I guess they got tired of writing songs about their brothers that died."

Capturing the mainstream

In a 1939 recording for the Library of Congress, Jelly Roll Morton sang "Two Way Pak E Way," a Mardi Gras Indian chant that translates roughly "get out of my way," and the forerunner of the Meters' "Hey Pocky Way." The song is still a common Indian chant, unrecognizable from the Meters or Nevilles version.

Another Indian buzz phrase turns up on recordings by such disparate types as Cha-Paka-Shaweez, Danny Barker, the Dixie Cups, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and Cyndi Lauper. That jaunty refrain, "jock-a-mo-fe-nah-hey," is lingua Mardi Gras for "kiss my a-," a constantly recurring theme in New Orleans life.

"Sugarboy (Crawford) and the Cane Cutters recorded 'Jock-A-Mo' in 1954," Porter said. "That was the basis for 'Iko Iko' and 'Hey Pocky Way.' Then everything else just fell into place.

"Musicians like Sugarboy and The Meters and Willie Tee (pianist Wilson Turbinton) started turning the chants into songs.

"In those days you couldn't have sold (pure) Indian music over vinyl," Porter said. "Dave Bartholemew (the legendary New Orleans producer who was recently inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame) was a big force behind making street music into a salable product for records."

By the 1970s the Indians themselves were in the studios, backed by top local musicians.

"They Call Us Wild" teamed Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias with Willie Tee, drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste and bassist George French. The album was produced by Jazz and Heritage Festival organizers Quint Davis and Allison Miner for the French Barclay label in 1970.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas, featuring the late George Landry (otherwise known as Big Chief Jolly and uncle of the Neville Brothers) performed with his nephews and the Meters for Island Records in 1976.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Rounder Records captured Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles live and "in context" (minus backup musicians) at the H&R Bar in 1987 for "Lightning and Thunder."

"I'm Back at Carnival Time," the latest offering from Rounder, features Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias backed by both the Rebirth Brass Band and a jazz group led by Porter, as well as traditional a capella chants.

Both Rounder releases are available through area record stores.

Selected performances from the rare earlier recordings were compiled for "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," released in 1977. The collection includes four cuts by The Wild Magnolias, as well as Indian-inspired Mardi Gras standards by Professor Longhair, Al Johnson, Earl King, The Hawketts and Stop, Inc.

"All of those songs had been out for years, but they were only available on 45s," said Warren Hildebrand, president of Mardi Gras Records. "My family business at that time was All South Distributors. We carried those 45s, but I could see a need for an album."

"Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Volume II" includes "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups and "Jock-A-Mo" by Sugarboy Crawford. The album was released in 1988.

"It was a long time coming," Hildebrand said. "It features three Meters songs that are really essential - 'Hey Pocky Way,' 'Mardi Gras Mambo' and 'They All Axed For You.' The licensing took years of negotiation."

Hildebrand said that he never releases sales figures, but the recordings are distributed nationwide and he receives overseas orders "occasionally."

"Sales have picked up in the last couple of years, basically because the interest in New Orleans music has picked up," he said.

For that, successful local musicians owe a big debt to the man on the street.

"The real credit should definitely go to the Indians," Porter said. "They were the guys that created black Mardi Gras music. It grew into the songs that a lot of the bands are doing now.

"It's truly unfortunate that a lot of that music never was credited the way it should have been. That's because the law says you can't copyright a rhythm. You can only copyright melodies and lyrics," Porter said. "But in this case the rhythm WAS the music."