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my first mardi gras

i've been meaning to write about my first mardi gras experience, but a) i've been busy, and b) it's really difficult to explain; it'is something that you just have to experience for yourself. But i'm going to try in any case.

first of all, for those that may not know, the term "Mardi Gras" here doesn't refer to Mardi Gras day, or Fat Tuesday, it refers to Mardi Gras Season, which is almost three straight weeks of parades. The big parades start the Thursday before Mardi Gras Day, and there are roughly four or five parades that do the Uptown route per day.

Growing up, i hated parades. I hated watching them because i thought they were boring, and i hated being in them either as a marcher or a staff person because they were long and just weren't my thing. But parades during mardi gras are a much different experience than parades anywhere else, mainly because the parades are much more interactive between the parade participants and the parade spectators.

There are two sides of the story to tell: mardi gras as a parade participant and mardi gras as a parade spectator.

First, as a parade participant. Tulane did four parades during mardi gras season: Ponchetrain on February 14th, Krewe D'Etat on February 20th, Krewe of Thoth on February 22nd, and Rex on Mardi Gras day. All of the parades followed the same uptown route, but they all started on different blocks: Ponchetrain was 5 miles, D'Etat was 6 miles, Thoth was 7 miles, and Rex was 5 miles.

The drumline had five cadences that we had worked up to play, and the band had about seven tunes that they worked up to play, and i was essentially in charge of what got played and when, with some direction from Mark and Barry at certain times when, say, a big donor or someone in athletics was passing by, or the whim of Mark. A lot if my monitoring had to do with gauging the mood and chops of the drumline as well as the area we were in to determine which cadence we would break into, as well as always watching the street for horse shit to alert the drumline to avoid it.

Probably the lowest point of the whole thing was impressing upon the tenor line the importance of our professionalism and image whilst performing in the parades. Mardi gras parades aren't the most formal by any means; the band does choreography to the cadences and to some of the tunes, and the drumline had moments where they'd dance around informally, which is fine. But while i love the tenor players, they frustrated me during a couple of the parades because of their lack of understanding that doing that shouldn't be in sacrifice of sound quality nor still approaching the drum with proper technique. The most frustrating was in D'Etat when their goof-off attitudes and lax concentration caused them to play wrong parts or miss hand signals that made the drumline and the organization sound bad at the very end of the parade. They did better in the subsequent parades after i laid into them about it.

For me personally, i generally had the blinders on when it came to the spectators in the same way i have blinders on when i'm performing in any context; i was concentrating too much on monitoring the band and the drumline to be able to truly interact with anyone, unlike Barry and Mark who, aside from some crowd control duties, were able to interact with various people in the parade, throw band doubloons at people, &c. i did get a general sense of the scale and the type of crowd that we were playing to, and that was useful because it really showed how different the crowd was depending on where you were. The crowd at Canal Street was more in line with what i feel is the stereotypical impression of Mardi Gras; packed streets on both sides full of drunk tourists waiting for floats to come by to toss them beads or other trinkets for fun. (i didn't see any naked boobs as the concept of having to take your clothes off to receive any beads is greatly exaggerated.) By contrast, in the uptown area of the parade, the crowd was still huge, but the spectators were more new orleans community; families who have been going to mardi gras parades for years and years that have their lawn chair and step stool/ladder and paper bags ready to collect beads and trinkets. There were many older people who were super serious and aggressive about their bead collecting, the kinds of people that have bags and bags of beads stored in their attic from parades for the past ten to twenty years.

this is something that i saw more clearly when i was out as a parade spectator. i spent no time in the french quarter during Carnival which i'm glad about because i understand it was a mad house down there. The only time i was ever even on Canal Street was when the parade route took the Tulane University Marching Band there. As a spectator, i spent all of my time uptown, centered around St. Charles and Delachase.

The above is a compilation of video i took on thursday night for the two uptown parades, Krewe of Chaos and Krewe of Muses.

What sticks out about the way the parade is structured is how the blended mix of bands/other acts with the interactivity of the floats throwing beads and trinkets to the crowd to screaming spectators makes it so that the energy of the parade never dies. The pace of the parade would be much less effetive if, say, you saw five bands in a row and then five floats in a row or vice versa.

And with that structure and the amount of people around you, it's impossible to not have fun. Whether you see the bands/acts as interlude entertainment to the catching of beads or the bead catching as the interlude to hearing the bands play or the acts go by, the communal ritual of interacting with the parade and sharing comments or comparing beads with the people around you automatically raises the bar for your level of engagement.

The communal feeling about mardi gras is another aspect that was awesome, particularly uptown. Mark and i discussed this a few times after it was all over, about how mardi gras brings together every demographic and culture possible towards a common celebration and creates an atmosphere in which those various cultures can interact with each other on some level in a way that nothing else does. it also creates a context in which people can express themselves more freely than normal and still be accepted, which i think is another shining aspect of the whole celebration. The example that Mark put forth was how a respected businessman, a level not too far below a CEO, was dressed in drag during mardi gras; most other places in the country, if that businessman was out dressed in drag, he would get fired or at the very least reprimanded whether he was on the clock or not, but during mardi gras, no one bats an eye at that sort of thing.

it was easy for me to get somewhat caught up in the "bead fever" because sometimes you get some awesome collectable beads, and if you're there with friends (and why would you not be?) it can turn into a friendly competition. The first parade that i went to which was the thursday before valentine's day, i didn't catch a whole lot, but the night of Chaos and Muses i caught a lot of nifty beads.

as far as the bands went, i was amazed at all of them, at how foreign they all seemed to me in their aesthetic. the ugly brass sounds, the old school sling drums and plastic black-dot bass drums heads, the dance teams; they all had a certain *something* that was fantastic to watch and listen to. Listening to the cadences and the walk beats that the drumlines put out was research for me; the video and audio i plan on listening to over and over again until i can hopefully grok the style enough to more successfully emulate it for cadences next year.

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There were definitely downsides to mardi gras season, and that was that even though i like large crowds and being around a lot of people, the sheer volume of people and the amount of parades and activities makes certain parts of the city completely shut down or at the very least makes it impossible to get around. The street cars stopped their service. If your car is stuck within the parade route and the parade is going by, the only way to get to where you need to get to is to essentially get on the highway, leave the city, and reenter the city somewhere else. i was fairly certain that if i wanted to go downtown to play cards at Harrah's, i wouldn't have been able to drive there because the streets would have been blocked off and/or parking would have been nastier than usual.

The other potential downside depending on where you live is that mardi gras is impossible to ignore. If i was living in the french quarter or along saint charles, i wouldn't be able to get any work done or sleep well at night (particularly in the quarter) because the parties run nonstop until 5am or later. Thankfully i didn't have that issue since i live in an area uptown that is separate from the parade route, but i can see where that sort of thing would become tiresome for residents. Mark said (and i saw evidence to this) that some of the residents just leave town for the week so they don't have to deal with it.

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*ponders*

i think that might be it, or at least if there's other stuff i can save it for another entry or for next year since this entry is already pretty long. :) negatives aside, the experience was a pretty amazing one for me, something i feel that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime because i've never experienced anything else like it in my entire life.

pretty awesome.

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