DJ Sessions: The Music Of Mardi Gras

Mar 5, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 3:49 pm

On this Fat Tuesday, the music of Mardi Gras will ring through the streets of New Orleans — during parades, at bars and from residents’ homes.

Producer and DJ George Ingmire  of WWOZ in New Orleans tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson two quintessential Mardi Gras songs are “Mardi Gras Mambo” by the Hawketts and “Carnival Time” by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson.

Songs Heard In This Segment


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And time now for another edition of the HERE AND NOW DJ Sessions.


TOM PETTY: (Singing) There goes the last DJ.

JAMIE FOXX: (Singing) DJ, won't you play this girl a love song?

NIC CESTER: (Singing) Dance, little DJ, come on.

HOBSON: Well, as you can hear there, on this fat Tuesday, we are going to talk about the music of Mardi Gras. George Ingmire is host of "New Orleans All The Way Live" from WWOZ in New Orleans, and he's with us now. George, welcome.

GEORGE INGMIRE: Well, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: Well, it's great to have you. And let's get right to some of the music that people will be hearing, I guess, amid the marching bands and parades and king cakes that are associated with Mardi Gras. This is some traditional music associated with the festival. It's called "Carnival Time." It's from Al Johnson.


AL JOHNSON: (Singing) Claiborne Street is a-rockin' from-a one side to the other. The joints are jammin', packin', and I'm about to smother. All because it's Carnival time. Whoa, it's Carnival time. Oh, well, it's Carnival time and everybody's havin' fun.

HOBSON: So tell us about this song.

INGMIRE: Well, it's radio so you can't see, but I'm dancing right now.


INGMIRE: That's a great song. That's by Al Carnival Time Johnson, who happens to be a neighbor of mine here in the Musicians Village. And he recorded that song sometime in late '59 or 1960. And when we were talking about it, he told me his whole premise was there are so many songs with the word Mardi - you know, the phrase Mardi Gras in it, he figured, well, when I grew up we talked about Carnival. We didn't call it Mardi Gras.

So he wrote that song with the idea that he was going to break some new ground, and he grabbed that one and just - and ran with it. The lyrics are fascinating. He's just - it's a song that makes you want to move your feet and explains the true joy of being out there on the Carnival around.

HOBSON: Well, you say the lyrics are fascinating. Give us an example of that.

INGMIRE: All right. The green room is smoking, and the plaza is burning down. Throw my baby out the window, and let the joint burn down, which is basically let's just have a good time. But it's set up in a way, like, what are you talking about?

HOBSON: Which is basically the theme song of New Orleans at all times: let's just have a good time.

INGMIRE: Let's have a good time.


JOHNSON: (Singing) Everybody's drinkin' wine.

HOBSON: OK. Let's get to another one. This is "Mardi Gras Mambo." It's by The Hawketts, featuring Art Neville from The Neville Brothers. Let's listen.


ART NEVILLE: (Singing) Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn. On LaSalle and Rampart Street, the combo's there with a mambo beat. The Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo. Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo. Mardi Gras mambo, oh, down in New Orleans.

HOBSON: The mambo, you don't really think about the mambo when you think of New Orleans.

INGMIRE: Well, you do if you spend enough time here and you realize that we're a northernmost Caribbean city more than a southern city.

HOBSON: This is what they say, that New Orleans is the best-run city in the Caribbean, not the worst-run city in the United States.

INGMIRE: I'll have to agree.


INGMIRE: That's a subject for another day. But yes, if would pick one of these songs, that's the one that you're going to hear the most, and I dare would call it the "Stairway to Heaven" of Mardi Gras Indian music. But it's pretty close in terms of being played that much. But if you're going to hear it going down St. Charles, you know, being played out of PA systems on the carnival floats, out of people's houses, it's everywhere.

HOBSON: Well, here's one that will not be everywhere, but I still want to listen to it because it is associated with Mardi Gras. This is "Shallow Water." It's by Donald Harrison, Jr., featuring the vocals of his father, Donald Harrison, Sr.


HOBSON: Now, why is that not something that you would hear on St. Charles?

INGMIRE: Because it's Mardi Gras Indian music, and the Mardi Gras Indians are doing it in the neighborhoods. They're not doing it on the big routes. They're doing it in the black neighborhoods. They're doing it downtown, back of town, so to speak, and it's a call-and-response music. And it's - this morning, Mardi Gras Indians have come out already, 6:00 in the morning, and they're - they're in their suits. Their neighbors and their friends and people who follow that specific Mardi Gras Indian tribe are out there waiting for them to come out of their houses. And they're singing songs. They're going to start off with another song, but you'll hear "Shallow Water," that rhythm and everything. You really do feel like you're no longer in the United States of America.


HOBSON: What about this version of it? What do we know about Donald Harrison, Junior and Senior?

INGMIRE: Well, Donald Harrison, Jr. is a remarkable jazz player, and his father was a big chief, Donald Harrison, Sr. And Donald Harrison, Jr. broke some new ground here by taking Mardi Gras Indian music that was originally recorded and saved, like, by the Smithsonian in the '50s, and it was field recordings, and he put it in a studio with jazz music, which was pretty much never done before like this. But he knew the tradition because he grew up masking as a Mardi Gras Indian himself. And bringing his father into sing these songs on an album that also features people like Dr. John, it was totally a new way to approach Mardi Gras Indian music.

HOBSON: All right. Well, you wanted us to hear another one. This is "Indian Red." It's by The Wild Tchoupitoulas.


HOBSON: It almost sounds like something that's come out of South Africa.

INGMIRE: Absolutely. There's harmonies and everything. That song, "Indian Red" in particular, a song at the beginning of the day. It's kind of a prayer. And it's also a song of defiance. There's a line in there, we won't bow down, down on the ground. And it has to do with, like, pride and defiance against a culture that was formerly very oppressive.

Now it's about pride and beauty. And at the end of the day, it's sung again. Once the Mardi Gras Indians make their way back to their house, they sing that song as, I guess, a way of thanks that we made it through the day in one piece. Because years ago there was a lot of violence between Mardi Gras Indians. And now it's about how beautiful their suits are.


THE WILD TCHOUPITOULAS: Down on the ground. Oh, I love you, yeah, and it's gone, my Indian red. (Unintelligible), yah, yeah.

HOBSON: Does New Orleans, today, on Mardi Gras, feel like it did pre-Katrina or is it still missing something that was there before?

INGMIRE: Katrina was a wake-up call for some people about how important the culture is. And there are still people - I don't want to, you know, sugarcoat this. There are still people who did not come back, who settled elsewhere for a number of reasons. And I'm sad because I know there's a part of their heart missing because they're elsewhere. But the city itself, you wouldn't know that we were impacted the way we were, even 2006. I was here throughout all that, and you knew that we were here with the same amount of strength and pride and just embracing - the city lives through you, I guess is what you all would say, and you can't leave it. And so post-Katrina, things are great here in a lot of ways. I don't want to sugarcoat it. There are a lot of things that need to be worked on. But on Carnival Day, everyone is just having a good time.

HOBSON: Well, I hope you have a good time today. George Ingmire, host of "New Orleans All the Way Live" on WWOZ in New Orleans. Thanks so much for speaking with us. Happy Mardi Gras.

INGMIRE: Well, thank you so much. It's my pleasure.


HOBSON: And this last one here is "Go to the Mardi Gras" by Professor Longhair. We've got all of them in And Robin, it's making me wish I was down there in New Orleans today.


If I went, it would rain. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.