Of masks and madness: a New Orleans Mardi Gras

Once a year the heartland of American jazz goes completely wild. It's one hell of a party, but there's a menacing undercurrent. Sasha Abramsky recalls the experience

NEW ORLEANS in the four-day approach to Fat Tuesday - the traditional Catholic holiday on the day before Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on 25 February - goes crazy. The city becomes a freak. Being there is like immersing yourself in a combination of Halloween, New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square, the American Superbowl, a high-school prom and the toga party from Animal House. It is like impersonating John Belushi at his most manic and grotesque for four days straight.

I was staying in a huge wooden house that had been converted into a general crashing-pad for the extended Mardi Gras weekend, and over the next few days I was whisked from street parade to bar to music club to costume party to crawfish buffet - and back.

Basically, the city puts on a mask that it has been tinkering with since its founding as an outpost of the French Empire, three years after the death of the Sun King, Louis XIV. It is both a literal and a metaphoric mask. Metaphoric, because the city hides its problems - poverty, crime, corruption - behind a week of hard-core festivities; literal, because the festivities focus on costume and disguise. Carnival time is the season of the Masked Ball, when society figures don costumes. In the old, aristocratic, slave-owning South, the ante-bellum Belles were introduced into Society during these elaborate galas. But, more inclusively, Carnival time is also a time of street parades, when enormous floats, put together by "krewes" - fraternal organisations as exclusive as the most formidable Country Clubs - make their way through town, their way lit by gas-lamp-carrying flambeaux, their audience the masses lining the streets below.

Motorised floats, strung together by dozens of high-school marching bands and cheerleaders in sexy costumes, by military krewes and elegant figures costumed in the immense dresses and plumed suits of a bygone century and sitting astride the finest horses - command the streets. Masked figures on the floats hurl plastic necklaces and cups and frisbees onto the increasingly hysterical crowd below. It looks and feels like a religious revival meeting. Arms stretch skyward, shrieking; hysterical, inebriated people reach up to grab the jewels as they fall. The masked men goad the girls to bare their breasts. Some oblige. Teenagers gyrate provocatively against lamp posts. Men holler lewdly at the cheerleaders skipping down the debris- strewn centre of the street. And dogs in the gardens lining the route howl their confusion into the sky.

In the poorer areas of town, masked African-Americans, divided into over 20 "Indian" tribes roam the streets in their own costumes, dressed as various Native American figures; it's a legacy from when the local tribes helped shelter escaping slaves. The tribes challenge each other to musical duels in bars. Sometimes, local gangs fight out their differences under the masks of Mardi Gras.

Carnival, which technically lasts from the 12th night of Christmas through to the eve of Ash Wednesday, exists throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. In the USA, however, New Orleans, with its long French and Spanish histories, is the only city to celebrate it so fervently.

It is a bawdy celebration that meshes perfectly with the freewheeling, decadent culture that permeates the air and streets of many major port cities. Like Veracruz, its Mexican coastal counterpart to the southwest, New Orleans leaps out of its surroundings. It is a place of decrepit splendours, abundant vice and promiscuity, raucous music and a babel of languages, rhythms, food spices and smells. In many ways it is deeply at odds with the undeviating conservatism of the countryside beyond. A few years back, Louisiana as a whole almost elected David Duke, an ex- Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as governor. In New Orleans, transvestites stumble drunk in and out of all-night jazz clubs.

Anything goes in this city, which makes it wonderful and rather unnerving. New Orleans may have the best music in America; but it also boasts serial killer cops, a third of the population living below the official poverty line, and the fifth highest murder rate in the United States. There is menace not far beneath the surface here.

Not infrequently, that menace bubbles to the surface. One Sunday night, in the old French Quarter, I emerged from a jazz bar into an impromptu drum-led street parade, and watched in horror as two characters wearing masks designed to grab primitive fears rushed past. One was in a wheelchair, pulling what looked to be a flayed dead dog behind him. The other was pushing the wheelchair at great speed. The parade stopped, and the creature in the wheelchair flopped out of the chair and began scuttling, crablike, to get under a car. He was on a leash. The creature pushing him, pulled back on the leash and reared him in. The parade marched on. The parade headed back toward the heart of the French Quarter and I returned, shaking, to my drink, and to the jazz music that was the soundtrack to our debauchery.

That jazz, for which New Orleans is so famous, has its origins in the beautiful streets of the old French Quarter, in the streets lined with old houses complete with rod-iron, flower-ornamented balconies, and in the surrounding, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods nearby. Louis Armstrong was born there and later told Life magazine that, with all the hardship, it was the "music [that] kept you rolling". Much of the iconography of the blues and jazz culture emerged in these passageways. These days, old honky-tonk bars such as Pnoemmian Hall - a tiny wooden-panelled room, in which nonagenarians belt out old Dixieland standards to audiences crammed onto wooden benches - and more spacious modern jazz venues such as the Cafe Brasil on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres, pour out sounds into the night.

During Mardi Gras, the Quarter is taken over by carousers, masked, weighed down with glittery plastic necklaces and fantasies. Sex-dreams are acted out in costume, couples chained to each other, various body parts hanging provocatively out of holes. After the parades, this is where the party is. Into the night, Bourbon Street is a mob of drunken people, openly slurping on powerful cocktails - the pint-sized, pink-coloured Hurricane being the local favourite - and god-awful Budweiser beers. The celebration itself seems to inject madness into the atmosphere.

As the days and nights of partying grind on, depriving participants of sleep, piling one hangover upon another, exhausting every muscle in the body, the nights take on an increasingly desperate edge. The whole city is building up to a climax, every fibre tensed, blood vessels all-but bursting, waiting for Fat Tuesday to explode upon it.

We woke up early on Tuesday. The household was busy putting on costumes many of its members had spent days making and months planning. I put on a pipe-cleaner mask and hoped that would suffice. Then we found the remnants of a mega-parade, heading down St Charles Avenue, towards the Quarter. But on Fat Tuesday, the parade is secondary. It is the public which is on display, promenading along St Charles, meeting friends, chatting with other costumees, drinking copiously and publicly, laughing, shouting and generally exhibiting. We walk through a sea of garbage. It looks as if a volcano has exploded under a landfill, showering New Orleans with plastic beads, beer bottles, cans, chicken wings, the red heads of boiled crawfish, frisbees, bits and pieces of costumes, plastic bags.

But the city isn't quiet, isn't ready to retire under the mess. Until midnight, the exhausted crowds will dance on, congregating in the French Quarter, on the streets and in the bars. Everyone is running on adrenalin, everybody is ready to sleep for a week.

It's 10pm and we're swaying to the music in the Cafe Brasil. The doors are open onto the street. Suddenly the crowd parts. A huge man barrels into the room, punching his girlfriend in the face as she falls back into the space where the crowd was a moment ago. His fist crunches into her again, this time smacking into her stomach.

A police car comes meandering through the streets. Suddenly three more squad cars race up. And 10 policemen get busy subduing the fighter. He is finally handcuffed and an enraged, animal-like scream of terror fills the street. He screams. Again. And again. And again. He howls like a dog and crouches on the sidewalk, until they bundle him into the car and take him away.

Mardi Gras is over. I'm ready to sleep a few hours and then get back on my bus and head back through the red clay and swamps, through the forests, and little country towns, and then up the east coast to New York City. In the morning, New Orleans will take a deep breath, wipe itself off and begin preparing for next year.

new orleans fact box

Getting there

The best prices to New Orleans in the next couple of months are from around pounds 300. Travel Bug flight agency (tel: 0990 747737) suggest Continental for pounds 280 +pounds 54 tax for return flights before the end of March.

Accommodation

For a list of hotels and B&Bs, phone New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission, at (504) 566 5011; or the Louisiana State Office of Tourism, at (504) 568 5661.

In the expensive range ($200) is the Windsor Court Hotel, at 300 Gravier Street, (504 523 6000),. Then there's Le Meridien New Orleans, in the French Quarter; 614 Canal Street (504) 525 6500/800 543 4300); known for good jazz on the premises and excellent river views. The Hotel Monteleone has over 600 rooms, and a very ornate ballroom; 214 Royal Street (54 523 3341). The Omni Royal Orleans is built in the old French style, with old balconies; 621 Saint Louis Street (504 529 5333).

Budget places include Saint Vincent's at 1507 Magazine Street, a converted 19th century orphanage, with 31 rooms with private baths (tel: 504 566 1515).

Youth hostels and YMCAs in America tend to be fairly grim affairs, but try the Spartan YMCA Hotel, 920 St Charles Avenue (tel: 504 568 9622).

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all