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).

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