Indian Carnival cousins

It’s common knowledge that wild Indians have been a part of Trinidad Carnival for more than a hundred years, but what not many Trinis know is that New Orleans' Mardis Gras Indians are close cousins

  • Gerald Milton, chief of the White Eagles. Photograph by Michael P. Smith
  • Larry Bannock, chief of the White Star Hunters. Photograph by Michael P. Smith
  • Lil Chief Mohawk Hunters. Photograph by Michael P. Smith

We’ll never know what Trinidad’s long-time “Jam-ette” Carnival was really like in the 1860s, with its kalenda stickfighting bands and primal canboulay mas. In Trinidad today, if any of that slavery-reflecting stuff survives, it’s mostly as an “old mas” show for kiddies and tourists. Except for J’Ouvert morning, “pretty mas” has all but taken over.

Oddly enough, the closest you’ll get to Jamette Carnival today isn’t in Trinidad at all; it’s in New Orleans. And that’s particularly strange, because in almost every way Trinidad Carnival is wilder, more Africanised, and more participatory than New Orleans’ tame, European-style Mardi Gras. Except for the Mardi Gras Indians.

Currently, there are close to thirty Indian gangs in New Orleans — working class African-Americans like the Wild Tchoupitoulas or the Wild Magnolias who celebrate Mardi Gras by dressing in elaborate, home-made dream-Indian costumes of plumes and sequins and beads. Their Afro-patois street-chants and dance-fighting rituals go back hundreds of years to the earliest slave gatherings in New Orleans’ Congo Square — not to mention the kalenda stick-fighting bands. Even anthropologists are finally starting to see the connections.

Both kalenda bands and Indian gangs are informal neighborhood associations, out to uphold the honour and pride of the ’hood by kicking the butts of rival bands on Carnival day. And both take to the street with musicians who raise the fighting spirit. In Trinidad that music became calypso; in New Orleans it turned into rhythm and blues.

Nowadays, Indian violence is rare; the contests are based on dance, singing, costume, and attitude. But the Indians remain outlaws. When they hit the street, they apply for no police permit; they are prepared to take care of themselves in the streets of New Orleans.

When Indian gangs perform at New Orleans’ Jazzfest, they are fully costumed, often backed by the cream of the city’s session musicians, and the music can be extremely sophisticated. But “Indian practice”, which generally takes place on Sunday evenings at various tiny neighborhood bars in the weeks before Mardi Gras, is a different story.

The Indians dress in street clothes at practices, and sometimes, towards the end of the evening, when everyone is in high spirits, a gang will break out of its home bar and dance its way into another gang’s bar. There is an elaborate protocol governing this situation: each visiting gang member must dance-challenge each “officer” of the home gang, interacting bravely but respectfully, in order to be passed up the line to meet the Big Chief.

First a challenger must get past the Spy Boy, then the Flag Boy, then the Wild Man, then any number of junior chiefs, and finally, if protocol is observed, the Big Chief. Once he wins through, the challenger melts into the crowd — or makes his way to the bar in search of another drink.

Challenges can be friendly or hostile. The tricky part is that even amiable meetings between Indians look violent, with mock threats and boasting. In the rare case of a truly hostile challenge, serious fighting may occur. But mostly these forays involve little more than an exchange of danced confrontations and artful verbal threats — and after proper protocol is observed, and the visiting gang pays its respects to the home gang, the Big Chiefs dance and everyone goes home happy. With all the drumming, chanting, and dancing you can easily imagine yourself in West Africa, not in America at all.

A few years ago, I visited a tiny bar in New Orleans’ Gerttown neighborhood. It would have been easy to miss on the dark street, since it was marked only by a single lightbulb burning above the door. This was the home bar for one of the most highly respected Indian Chiefs, Larry Bannock, and his gang of White Star Hunters. Men with tambourines were drinking on the sidewalk, and I could hear more tambourines clashing inside, along with enthusiastic chanting and shouting.

Inside, at least fifty people — men and women of all ages — were crammed into the back room, along with 12 drummers and percussionists. The crowd was carrying a series of backup chants, while the Big Chief and the other gang members set improvised lead vocals on top.

Everyone was enjoying the music, dancing along with drinks in hand, and joining in on the chant, which Larry changed from time to time, cycling through Mighty Kootie Fiyo, Hoon Don Day, My Big Chief Got a Golden Crown, and a new number that seemed to be titled “If you don’t start no s—, there won’t be no s—”.

Indian dancing is intensely African, involving ritualised moves intended to challenge another dancer, and to respond to that challenge — to show respect, or disrespect, or to boast, or bow down in defeat. There’s lots of fierce mock-violence, one-footed second-line leaping, precisely pantomimed gestures of donning garments, preparing weapons and wielding them, warding off attacks, challenging and deferring, insult and apology. The dance language is rich, literate, and articulate, with plenty of room for innovation. I’ve seen a Trail Chief make a slow spin, turning on one foot which he held in perfect point. I wondered if he was, perhaps, a trained ballet dancer in his other life.

The room was exploding with noise. One of the men at the rear of the back room was beating out a second-line rhythm with drumsticks on a big tom-tom. Another was seated in front of two plastic utility tubs, on which he was banging out polyrhythms with two broomstick handles. I counted five tambourines, and several guys playing bottle and spoon — a traditional Caribbean percussion ensemble.

Three young boys were learning the moves. The Big Chief cued them with his hands and his body language, letting them know when to approach, when to fall back. The kids were given an easy ride, allowed to join the group after short, rudimentary challenges. They tried to keep their faces impassive, but they still looked like they had died and gone to heaven.

I had been there for half an hour when the chant changed to Indians, Here They Come.The Spy Boy at the door had seen another gang approaching. Suddenly, on the sidewalk outside the bar a huge group of dancers and singers were pouring from their cars, all chanting “Fi-Yi-Yi! Fi-Yi-Yi!” over and over. The Fi-Yi-Yi gang had come to call.

One after another, the challengers made their way up the gauntlet. First they met the White Star Hunter kids — and the kids were great, facing down menacing intruders twice their size and four times their age. Finally, Fi-Yi-Yi’s Big Chief (carrying an animal skull high above his head) entered the bar to greet and dance with the White Star Hunters’ Chief. As they danced, the entire room exploded into celebration.

Simultaneously, a member of another tribe (or perhaps an unaffiliated Indian) appeared at the door and attempted to dance his way up to the Chief. He was drunk, and pushed things a little too hard and a little too fast. Suddenly, a tight group of White Star Hunters closed around the visitor, and the crunch exploded into flying fists.

It was over within seconds, and the rejected Indian left the bar quickly. Bannock moved to the door. “Don’t touch me!” he shouted after the intruder, adding an obscenity. “If you don’t know how to play the game . . . Don’t you ever lay your hands on me.”

The practice regrouped quickly, and the drumming and dancing resumed. The tambourines worked up a complicated polyrhythm as different voices traded off the lead, mixing traditional verses with some new “hip-hoppy” ones with more obscenities and a harder edge.

The whole scene was so strong and undiluted it was easy to imagine it taking place in the central clearing of a West African village. This was sacred ground. And it occurred to me that if you could somehow teleport the club full of celebrants to the bottom of the Caribbean island chain, and drop them anywhere along Frederick Street in the midst of Carnival, neither New Orleanians nor Trinidadians would notice anything odd. The ever-renewing power of West African culture connects these two celebrations mouth-to-mouth. And it ain’t nothin’ but a party.


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The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.