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History of New Orleans Mardi Gras Music

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Featured Image Credit: houmatimes.com

Now that we’ve transitioned from the holiday season, it’s time to embrace a different kind of festivity—the vibrant and soulful tunes of Mardi Gras in New Orleans! As the calendar flips to the new year, the people of New Orleans eagerly swap out their Christmas albums for the infectious beats of “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Iko Iko,” and a myriad of other melodies that define the Carnival season. This original music, deeply rooted in tradition, has been a crucial part of Mardi Gras celebrations for generations, creating an unmistakable soundtrack for the festivities. In the words of the classic song Mardi Gras Mambo, “Down in New Orleans, Where the blues was born, It takes a cool cat to blow a horn…” 

Early Roots of New Orleans Mardi Gras Music 

Members of an early mardi gras ball in the 1900s
Source: businessinsider.com

Long before Mardi Gras became the extravagant celebration we know today, New Orleans was a city of music and dance. Even in the early days, there was a need to celebrate every event, big or small. Balls and galas, inspired by European culture, were common affairs where people showcased their best formal attire and danced the night away. Music played a pivotal role in these gatherings, and musicians were in high demand. 

During the 19th century, Carnival in New Orleans became more organized with the emergence of societies and krewes. The upper-class citizens formed these groups, structuring elaborate balls complete with queens, kings, and royal courts. Dance continued to hold a prominent position, with everything from the royal entrance to the waltz being done with a rhythmic flair. This era laid the foundation for the rich musical history of Mardi Gras. 

Evolution of New Orleans Carnival Music

New orleans mardi gras music
Photographer: Michael P. Smith, The Historic New Orleans Collection

In the late 1800s, before jazz took center stage, Mardi Gras music drew influences from the sounds of the Caribbean, Africa, France, and Spain. Brass bands, often dominated by horn musicians, became a prominent feature, forming their own societies and clubs. These bands played a significant role in the development of jazz, contributing to the unique musical landscape of New Orleans. 

Introduced by the Zulu Club in the 1800s, second line music, brass music, rhythm and blues, and zydeco became the leading sounds of Carnival during parades. The enigmatic Mardi Gras Indians, influenced by Native American traditions, left an indelible mark on the season, contributing to musical favorites like “Iko Iko” and “Jock-A-Mo.” The music of the Mardi Gras Indians, representing strength and tradition, became an integral part of Mardi Gras music history. 

Armstrong's Influence and the Birth of Modern-Day Mardi Gras Music 

Louis armstrong performing onstage in 1966
Source: udmercy.edu

In 1949, Louis Armstrong, at the height of his popularity, returned to New Orleans to fulfill his dream of being the King of the Zulus on Mardi Gras Day. This momentous occasion, covered by media worldwide, brought unprecedented exposure to New Orleans’s Carnival traditions and set a new standard for celebrity involvement in Mardi Gras parades. Armstrong’s appearance not only inspired a wave of songs about Carnival but also marked the beginning of Mardi Gras music as a distinct genre. 

The growing demand for Black and Afro-Caribbean dance music during this period would soon transform popular culture globally, leading to the explosion of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. The early Mardi Gras recordings from the 1950s provide a snapshot of the musical diversity and influence of New Orleans, foreshadowing the forces that would shape the soundtrack of Carnival and influence popular music across the country. 

Mardi Gras Songs and Music of Today 

With a rich history and an abundance of songs to explore, the music of Carnival time stands as one of the best aspects of New Orleans’ culture. While other cities may claim the title of having the first Mardi Gras, none can compare to the elaborate music and celebration that New Orleans has cultivated. Local school bands have become a significant source of music during parades, and the city’s famous brass bands, from Professor Longhair to the Meters to Dr. John, have created timeless Carnival tunes. 

Mardi Gras music in New Orleans is characterized by unamplified brass instruments such as tubas, trombones, and trumpets, along with percussion instruments like marching snare and bass drums. Jazz, with Louis Armstrong playing a pivotal role, has woven its way into the Mardi Gras celebrations. Contemporary acts like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Roots, and Kool and The Gang continue to contribute to the iconic celebration. 

Exploring the Heartbeat of New Orleans: A City Bus Tour during Carnival Season 

New Orleans Mardi Gras music continues to evolve, with each year of celebration adding new layers to its vibrant history. From the traditional sounds of brass bands to the infectious rhythms influenced by Mardi Gras Indians, the music remains a testament to the enduring spirit of Carnival in New Orleans. 

For those visiting New Orleans during Carnival season, a unique and exciting experience awaits on a city bus tour with Cajun Encounters. The rich history and culture of the city come alive as travelers explore must-see neighborhoods, landmarks, and select New Orleans cemeteries, all within the comfort of a climate-controlled bus. 

The New Orleans City Bus Tour covers iconic neighborhoods like the famous French Quarter and Garden District, the birthplace of Jazz, Treme, and much more. Travelers can discover the diverse cultural heritage of New Orleans while enjoying the lively tunes that echo the festive spirit of Mardi Gras. It’s an opportunity to embark on a memorable journey through the heart of this vibrant city and appreciate the enchanting rhythms that have become an integral part of its celebratory traditions. 

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