Mardi Gras Time

We celebrate Fat Tuesday on Saturday in Rhode Island

Though Rhode Island is quite a drive from Louisiana, we still know of a great excuse to party. MARDI GRAS is an annual celebration each February in Louisiana for a two and a half week period ending with Fat Tuesday and the beginning of Lent. All across Louisiana, Mardi Gras traditions are celebrated depending on one’s location and background.

New Orleans Mardi Gras is particularly well-known, often called “the greatest free show on earth”. The celebrations draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city in addition to the celebrating locals for the parties and parades. Most tourists can be found within the French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street.

Mardi Gras came to New Orleans with the earliest French settlers. New Orleans developed new traditions, including Carnival organizations called Krewes such as
the Krewe du Vieux, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and the famous Rex parade, in addition to Mardi Gras Indians and king cake parties. There are as many as 60
Krewes that have parades in the greater New Orleans area. Officially, the Mardi Gras season begins on the 12th day after Christmas. Most parades, balls and other festivities occur on weeknights and weekends in the 2-week period before Mardi Gras Day. Though each parade is different, there are certain common ingredients; there
is a king of each Krewe, picked from among the Krewe membership; gaily colored floats, ridden by masked and costumed Krewe members, who throw various items, including beads (necklaces), metal coins called doubloons bearing the official emblem and often, that year’s parade’s grand marshals name, and assorted other fun items; marching bands from local high schools and universities, and often other invited guest bands.

While the Rhode Island event does not include the parades, it does echo the other major tradition of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. New Orleans is the scene of exclusive and elaborate masked, tableau balls held by most of the parading krewes and other organizations which limit their activities only to balls. Usually invitation-only affairs, many of the balls feature the presentation of the city’s debutantes.

Louisina’s African American communities have their own traditions, where they dress in elaborate feather and bead Mardi Gras Indian costumes in New Orleans where they parade, dance and chant among neighborhood tribes. Rural African Americans celebrate in a similar style as the Cajuns, and gather each night at the Zydeco clubs to eat, drink and dance.

Here in New England, at the annual CAJUN & ZYDECO MARDI GRAS BALL, we have a sampling of these traditions together for an unforgettable night of New Orleans, Cajun and Creole music, dance, and food.

While people come dressed in every style of dress imaginable, the organizers encourage everyone to get into the Mardi Gras spirit and attend in full costume or formal wear and masks. Prizes are awarded to the best costumes in a variety of categories, with a grand prize of $250 to the best overall entrant. Other categories will include best group, best couple, best individual, most creative and most traditional. Entrants will be required to pre-register on site so we can place everyone in the proper category prior to the judging.

What, don’t know what Zydeco is?

Zydeco is a form of folk music, originated in the beginning of the 20th century among the Creole peoples of south-west Louisiana and influenced by the music of the French-speaking Cajuns. It is heavily syncopated (back-beat), usually fast-tempo, and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a rub-board or vest frottoir. Other instruments include the fiddle, guitar, bass guitar and drums.

Zydeco’s rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Cajun music with African-American traditions that also underpinned R&B and blues. In its early days, it was known as “la-la”; “zodico” and various other names. Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of what later became known as zydeco in 1928.

The music was brought to the fringes of the American mainstream in the mid-1950s, with the popularity of Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis. In the mid-1980s, Rockin’ Sidney briefly re-popularized zydeco music nationwide with hit remake of the classic tune “My Toot Toot”. This led to the resurgence of Zydeco artists, and spawned a new crop of innovators. Young zydeco musicians, such as Chubby Carrier and Rosie Ledet began emerging in the early 1990s. Chris Ardoin, Beau Jocque, Keith Frank, and Zydeco Force added a new twist to traditional Zydeco by tying the whole sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called “double clutching.”

There is even a dance style associated with Zydeco. It is a partner dance that has been primarily danced socially and sometimes in performances. The follower usually mirrors the steps of the leader however in some figures the steps may be completely different, allowing for self-expression and improvisation. Because of the very lively music, the overall style is small sidewise steps with relatively steady upper body and no hip swinging, wiggling or jumping. There are exceptions to this rule, but feel of the zydeco is very real and consistent. Zydeco dance can be described as the opposite of swing or ballroom since the direction or feel of the dance is down, not up like swing or ballroom.

The basic step in zydeco takes 8 beats and consists of two mirrored parts 4 beats each. The step pattern is often memorized as “SPSS SPSS”, “S” is for “step”, “P” is for pause. In the most basic form, there are no steps at all, only weight shifting from one foot to another. The leader starts with weight on his right (“R”) foot, the left (“L”) one is without weight about one foot sideways. (The right foot of both partners points between the feet of the opposite partner, knees are slightly bent (“softened”).) On count “1″ the leader transfers his weight on the left foot, followed by pause, then the weight is transferred on the right foot and back on the left one.  The same repeats in the opposite direction: right-pause-left-right. Sometimes this step pattern is memorized as “LLRL RRLR”, indicating the standing foot for each beat of the music.

After mastering the basic rhythm, one may replace simple weight transfers by very small steps to shuffle in place or just a little sideways or the couple may rotate in either direction, usually in the clockwise direction.

Finally, the lively zydeco music with its accented 2nd (and 6th) beats will force you to do something rather than simply “pause” on counts 2 and 6. Usual “fill-ins” are kicks, toe or heel taps, flicks, brush, etc. with the free (unweighted) foot or a little twist on the weighted foot. These actions are commonly known as “eat-a-beat”.

So whether you come for the food, the music, the drinks, or the dancing, come and share in the joie de vivre of a Louisiana Mardi Gras and — “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”

Find out about this year’s Mardis Gras Ball at www.mardigrasri.com