Monday, February 20, 2012

The Mardi Gras Spirit – New Orleans and Beyond

[Music cue: The Hawkettes, Mardi Gras Mambo:
     “Down in
New Orleans where the Blues was born. . . ”]
February 21st is Fat Tuesday. . . Mardi Gras Day!

Generally speaking, Mardi Gras is the culmination of about two weeks of celebrations ending the day before Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent.  Now, I am no religious scholar, so I could not begin to tell you about the religious aspects of this season.  But I think it means you are supposed to be really regimented and restrained – including a lot of fasting – and Lent lasts about forty days!  So I guess the idea of Mardi Gras is that before this period of solemn restraint. . . you go wild while you can.

And the most famous city in America for Mardi Gras is New Orleans.

I've been to New Orleans once, in August of my last year of college.  Many positive images of the visit are still with me.  Fortunately I was shaded away from the crime and poverty that unfortunately are a part of New Orleans.  The part of New Orleans heritage that would be tragic to lose is that cultural gumbo of the music, the food, the mythology (voodoo spirits, etc). . . and the spirit of celebration New Orleanians embrace so often.  Most of this I embraced in San Luis Obispo, California.

California???  San Luis O-What??  Yes indeed, I learned a lot of New Orleans music while I lived there.  And believe it or not, San Luis Obispo (SLO) had a small but vibrant Cajun scene.  The little town had a couple of excellent Cajun restaurants, a bar that booked a lot of Blues bands, and a community of Krewes that put on an annual Mardi Gras Parade through Downtown SLO every February.  People went all out with goofy costumes, goofy themes. . . and it ain’t Mardi Gras without those beads to toss or catch.  The parade got bigger and a little more unwieldy each year.  Two or three years after my move to Boston, my friend Joe (who was big into the local Krewes organization) told me the sad news: Mardi Gras had been canceled in San Luis.  But we sure had a lot of fun while it was around. 

[Music cue: Ellis Paul, Hurricane Angel]

With this in mind, maybe it won't sound so strange that when Hurricane Katrina hit, I felt pain for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast via San Luis Obispo, California.  Besides the humanitarian concern for the people in the Gulf, there was a connection with my friends in California.  It was almost like my friends there and I took an emotional hit in spirit for New Orleans – feeling the loss of something that was a part of us.  

[Music cue: Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans]

Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. As February '06 approached, I felt a little guilty for wondering, “will there be Mardi Gras in New Orleans?”  Six months after the hurricane, New Orleans' population was still depleted.  What with rebuilding, infrastructure concerns, etc, there were more serious matters than putting on a city parade and celebration.  I called the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce to ask about it.  The woman who answered me said that yes, they were good to go.  Her voice had a friendly yet assured sense that may as well have said, “not have a parade in New Orleans you must be joking!?!

Cambridge, MA musician Shaun “Wolf” Wortis has been staging a local Mardi Gras concert for years to benefit musicians lacking health care (the 19th annual was Feb 18th – for info check  Most recently, proceeds have gone to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.  In 2006, I asked Shaun if it was strange to have a Mardi Gras “celebration” when the city synonymous with Mardi Gras was in such trouble.  Myself, I had to admit it seemed a tad selfish.  Shaun's response was a tribute to the culture that will have a parade for any reason: paraphrasing, “to not dance, to not make a few toasts (to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, etc). . . is to give up.”

[Music cue: Professor Longhair, Go to the Mardi Gras]

Most of our human nature tends to emphasize grieving over our disappointments or losses. And sometimes you do need to grieve. But New Orleans culture does seem to celebrate the good of something even in the worst of conditions. This Mardi Gras, I wish you well in emphasizing the New Orleans philosophy.  I know I need to.

Whenever and however you can, Laissez Les Bon Temps Roullez (i.e; Let the Good Times Roll)!

Bring on the beads,

- Perry Persoff

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