Sunday, March 2, 2014

Voodoo at Mardi Gras! - Wild Tchoupitoulas gotta carry on!


The tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans is older than the city itself. Tribal origins date back to the 1700′s, but like much of the city’s history, these origins are shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Guardians of the Flame, the Black Seminoles, Creole Hunters, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Eagles, Wild Magnolia, the Flaming Arrows… are but a few of the names that have survived to modern times. There are over 50 tribes in the city according to some. This is history, culture, pride and evolution in graceful action.

"My spy-boy say your spy-boy"
Mardi Gras Indian history is an interesting gumbo of influences just like the city itself. There is evidence of the Native people of New Orleans, tribes like the Choctaw, the Seminoles, and the Chickasaws helping to free people of color from slavery. These practices led to the infamous “Natchez Revolt” where Native people and slaves alike attempted to protect and defend native land from French intrusion.

 Unfortunately, they were betrayed, and a bloody massacre ensued with some of the slaves beheaded, and their heads placed on pikes on the levee as a scare tactic. However, the secret alliances born in the wake of these horrors did not die. Native people continued to help slaves escape to the maroon camps in the swamps. According to author Willie W. Clark Jr., “in 1746 archives begin to refer to slaves dressing as Indians, as the African-Americans began to celebrate Mardi Gras in their unique customary fashion. These were in all likelihood, the first known “Black Indians.” So it begins...


The classic Voodoo and Mardi Gras intersections appears to have occurred in 1884 when the gatherings in Congo Square were forcibly ended and then reemerged as processions. In the classic West African Voodoo model, these societies, called gangs, were structured with territories, shy boys, flag boys, chiefs and wild men. The earliest such known appearances were the Creole Wild West who assumed the guise of Native American Plaines Indians.

According to sources such as Jelly Roll Morton, who at one time was a spy boy and an intimate of Voodoo, the nonsensical syllables are fundamentals in the indigenous music of New Orleans and the development of jazz. During a Voodoo ceremony, the primary object is for the participants to become possessed by the spirits by means of the music and dancing. Upon being possessed, evidence of this effect is given by the demonstration of the person’s speaking in nonsensical syllables, (like speaking in tongues), or the undecipherable “language” of the Voodoo spirits.

When the dispersed Congo Square groups reappeared on Mardi Gras as gangs, in the guise of Plaines Indians, they danced and chanted in various choruses of nonsensical syllables. Many of these chants have now become recorded musical ventures. Songs like the well known, “Iko-Iko” are constructed mainly of un-interpretable nonsensical syllables. Some will claim they are long forgotten Indian chants, some that they severely corrupted Creole French patois and some confess the words come to them in dreams.

 “Hey Now! (hey now) Hey Now! (hey now) Iko-Iko all day… if you don’t like what the Big Chief say, sing… Jac-o-mo fina na!” …as the song goes.

A far more direct Voodoo/ Mardi Gras link occurs in the activities and processions of the Skull and Bone gangs on Mardi Gras day. Because this group is not as colorful, has not commercialized and maintains a serious purpose, it is neither as popular or well known. This group gathers before dawn on Mardi Gras day in Congo Square to call on the African and Voodoo spirits to deputize them for their tasks ahead. Dressed in black sweat suits painted with skeleton bones and wearing large home-made paper mache skull heads, they filter off into the lower 6th and 7th wards just beyond the French Quarter.  Their mission, besides the celebration of Mardi Gras, is to seek out small children and warn them to live their lives righteously, least the skull and bone spirits come to them too soon. This group has strongly African spiritual ties and motives.

When two tribes meet, there are elaborate movements, dances, rituals and customs that happen, it is a sight to behold. The Wildman’s job is to clear the way, so the meeting can begin. Spyboy meets spyboy, and so on until the Big Chiefs come together. They chant, sing, greet, and posture with each other, in an elaborate ceremony that has evolved over centuries. What in archaic times was a dangerous confrontation, is now a display of respect and honor.

In spite of the mindset that Voodoo is a stationary ritual exercise, it is just as importantly, and literally, a procession, (called egungun), in which the same intentions and displays exist. Voodoo in New Orleans has both conceived and fused with the city’s musical and festival cultures. To find a real Voodoo ceremony today, one need not know where to look for it, but how to look for it.




- Sourced from the Voodoo Museum & the articles of Lilith Dorsey.