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Mardi Gras Music Playlist: Learn How Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, The Wild Magnolias And Others Soundtrack The New Orleans Celebration
Mardi Gras music is a reflection of southwestern Louisiana that occupies a deeply influential space in American music. If you can’t get to New Orleans for a walking cocktail, celebrate Mardi Gras wherever you are with a playlist of festival favorites.
In New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t just a massive party perched at the cusp of Carnival season and the solemn day of Lent. It’s a day that the complex heritage of the city is on display. Neighborhoods become parade routes; families and tourists line the streets to cheer and interact with folks aboard a glittering stream of floats. Along with those oversized, slow-rolling works of art, musicians march and revelers strut to a distinct but varied soundtrack, from brass bands to bounce.
Though some of the traditions date back to medieval Europe, Mardi Gras took hold in southwestern Louisiana in the 18th century and never let go. Secret societies known as krewes, such as Mistick Krewe of Comus and Krewe aof Rex, organized parades and parties, donning masks for relative anonymity. Grand European-style ballrooms held galas for the rich, where dancers could lose themselves in hypnotic waltzes.
Excluded from these festivities, African Americans formed their own krewes. In a nod to the Native Americans who offered sanctuary to runaway slaves, they called themselves Mardi Gras Indians, with "tribes" named after their ward, street or gang. In the early 20th century, Krewe of Zulu emerged from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
Some of the original krewes still exist, along with many contemporary groups, who build parade floats and plan Mardi Gras events throughout the year.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is a real-time reflection of whatever is going on in the city, but it’s also a tribute to the resilience of its residents. Only war, pandemic and a police strike have canceled or scaled back the traditional street parades. Even after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians rallied to show they could not be beat. Facing coronavirus in 2021, denizens decorated the exterior of their homes like parade floats for a socially distanced happening they called Yardi Gras. In 2022, the city’s health department rode along with Krewe of Muses to toss thousands of COVID tests to the crowds instead of beads.
Heading west, along the state’s farms and bayous, Mardi Gras customs reflect the rural lifestyle of the descendants of French, German, West Indian and other settlers. Towns such as Mamou, around 200 miles northwest of New Orleans, celebrate the Courir ("Run") de Mardi Gras. Wearing home-stitched outfits with fringes, unfussy masks and pointy capuchon hats, partygoers ride horses or run from house to house, "begging" for ingredients for a communal gumbo, and chase live chickens (bound for said gumbo).
Like the celebration, Mardi Gras music is a reflection of southwestern Louisiana — a cultural pocket of African American, European and Caribbean traditions. The regional sounds that sprung from immigration, slavery, military conflicts, commerce, faith, and — most of all — entertainment, occupy a unique and deeply influential space in American music. So if you can’t get to New Orleans for a walking cocktail, or to Evangeline Parish to chase a yardbird, celebrate Mardi Gras wherever you are with some of the state’s most evocative players and their songs.
"Mardi Gras In New Orleans"
This Carnival anthem was written by Henry Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair, whose Afro-Cuban boogie woogie piano riffing and right-hand triplets reverberate in the playing of Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Antoine "Fats" Domino and more. "Fess" calls out to parade honorees the Zulu King and Queen, and drops a pin on the Tremé neighborhood — home of numerous influential New Orleans musicians, by mentioning the intersection of "St. Claude and Dumaine," now the site of Louis Armstrong Park.
Fats Domino recorded his version in 1953, whistled melody and all, before "Ain't It A Shame" and "Blueberry Hill" made him famous far beyond New Orleans. Elvis, Little Richard and John Lennon are among those who praised Fats as an inspiration. Fats’ cohort included two other sons of the city who put their stamp on thousands of records: composer, producer and horn player Dave Bartholomew, and drummer Earl Palmer, who took his signature backbeat from New Orleans to Hollywood as a member of legendary session players the Wrecking Crew. The three men practically form a rock ‘n’ roll trinity.
Earl King, a New Orleans blues/R&B stalwart (whose work was covered by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan), wrote "Big Chief," but Professor Longhair made it a hit. Big Chief is the top spot in every tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, who merge African and Native American traditions. Amid wildly colorful Carnival gatherings, Mardi Gras Indians stand out with their huge headdresses and hand sewn beaded and feathered costumes; the Chiefs wear the most elaborate outfits.
"Big Chief" notes the hierarchy of each tribe — from spy boys, who watch out for rivals, and flag boys, who may carry a coat of arms. Though once known for gang-style violence, participants in "masking Indian," such as Bo Dollis, lobbied for peaceful coexistence. He elevated the costuming aspect of the tribes when he joined The Wild Magnolias as a flag boy and rose through the ranks to the honored position of Big Chief.
Artists ranging from Dr. John to Cyndi Lauper to the Grateful Dead have covered this tale of two Mardi Gras Indian tribes meeting on a parade route. A battle cry is called out ("Jock-A-Mo"). Threats are made ("I’m gonna set your flag on fire"). The song title is a victory chant.
Originally recorded with a jump blues feel as "Jock-A-Mo" by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford in 1953, the Dixie Cups made "Iko Iko" instantly recognizable a decade later. The New Orleans girl group had a No. 1 hit with the Phil Spector co-written "Chapel of Love." On this Mardi Gras classic, however, their vocals are accompanied only by drumsticks on ashtrays, handclaps, and a sparse bass overdub.
"Mardi Gras Mambo"
Two decades later, he re-recorded the song with The Meters. That pioneering group’s spacious, muscular funk landed them the house band spot at Allen Toussaint's record label, as well as gigs playing with Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and countless more. The Meters have since been sampled on hundreds of hip-hop, pop and dance records.
"Mardi Gras Day"
Dr. John creates a parade experience in this song, from the big bass drum in the lead, to the horn players touting the melody, to the second line — the folks who freeform it behind the main procession.
A singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and six-time GRAMMY winner, Malcolm "Mac" Rebennack created the persona of Dr. John, The Night Tripper, a luridly costumed musical "conjure" man who blended New Orleans R&B with psychedelia. His debut album Gris-Gris attracted a cult following, including highbrow rockers Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger (who later recorded with him). Dr. John also served time in the Wrecking Crew, playing on sessions with everyone from Sonny & Cher to Frank Zappa.
Rebennack swapped his voodoo revue for Mardi Gras classics on Dr. John’s Gumbo in 1972 and enjoyed his status as one of New Orleans’ most prominent musical emissaries for the rest of his life.
"The Mardi Gras March"
Beloved and vastly influential musician Louis Armstrong made the cover of Time on Feb. 21, 1949, a crown of trumpets adorning his head. But in the article, he was even more jazzed about an honor he said he’d waited for all his life: being King of the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras, which happened a week after his issue was published.
The man who sang "What a Wonderful World" grew up in poverty in a New Orleans neighborhood so rough it was called "The Battlefield." Music was ultimately his salvation, but it was the Zulu parades through his ward that uplifted his spirits as a boy.
Founded in 1909, Krewe of Zulu was rooted in a benevolent society that first made insurance available to the Black community and raised money to cover funeral expenses of its members. Today, they organize Toys for Tots and anti-crime drives, and raise tuition money for college-bound kids.
The "Birthplace of Jazz" — where ragtime met the blues and danced via brass instruments — continues to deliver significant jazz artists, like the Marsalis family (Ellis, Wynton, Branford) and Kermit Ruffins (Rebirth Brass Band). But it was Armstrong’s streetwise improvisational genius that made horn solos and the human voice extensions of one another, ushering in a new era of the genre.
"Ooh Poo Pah Doo"
Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, was 4 years old when he made his stage debut at New Orleans Jazz Fest with Bo Diddley. He became a bandleader at 6. Before his teen years were done, he’d been a member of Stooges Brass Band and toured the world with Lenny Kravitz.
Since then, Andrews has played or collaborated with everyone from Pharrell to Foo Fighters and netted a GRAMMY nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for his album Backatown. At any given time, his music may mine funk, hip-hop, R&B and hard rock, along with explosive brass.
Andrews also starred in the HBO series Tremé, which is his neighborhood. In one episode, he and brother James perform "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," a Mardi Gras Indian brass band staple and an Allen Toussaint-produced hit for their grandfather, Jesse Hill. For 2022’s Mardi Gras festivities, Andrews held his second-annual "Shorty Gras," a slate of performers including Big Freedia, Queen of Bounce, and GRAMMY nominated rock/hip hop/soul group Tank and the Bangas.
"Mardi Gras Zydeco"
Clifton Chenier, the Opelousas-born "King of Zydeco," liked to say that zydeco was French music mixed with rock 'n' roll. But the origins of this mid-century modern Creole dance music, characterized by accordion and metal rub board or "frottoir," are far murkier.
Evolved from Cajun/Creole "la la" music and "juré," a syncopated, a cappella style from West Africa and the West Indies, zydeco also borrows from New Orleans R&B and rock, and East Texas blues. The GRAMMY-winning Chenier was its first famous practitioner — name-dropped in song by Paul Simon, Rory Gallagher and John Mellencamp, and covered by Phish. Zydeco’s fame is often generational, with contemporary players like Geno Delafose, Chris Ardoin, and C.J. Chenier hailing from the genre’s originators but moving it forward.
"La Danse de Mardi Gras"
Cajun and Creole country are rich with cattle and horse farms (zydeco’s beloved Boozoo Chavis raised and trained racehorses near Lake Charles), along with rice and other crops. But Mardi Gras participants have to sing for their supper, or stand up on a horse, or do something to entertain the locals while asking them for ingredients to go into the town’s gumbo.
Traditionally, a Cajun song and/or dance was offered in exchange for foodstuffs. Afterwards, the horsemen ride triumphantly through the town’s main thoroughfare and eventually everyone eats.
"Mardi Gras Song"
Spanning the Acadiana region to southeastern Texas, swamp pop existed for years before it had a name. Cajun singer/songwriters like Bobby Charles and Warren Storm grew up around traditional Cajun and Creole music, fell in love with Fats Domino and rock ‘n’ roll, and added elements of country and western music to the mix.
They came up with dance tunes that were either impossibly upbeat (Charles’ "See You Later, Alligator," a hit for Bill Haley and His Comets), or torrid waltzes (Phil Phillips’ "Sea Of Love"). John Fogerty borrowed swamp pop’s cadence and imagery long before he ever actually saw a bayou.
The subgenre also developed a fanatical following in the U.K.: Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant had a copy of Storm’s "Prisoner’s Song" as a boy; decades later, he recorded and performed with Storm in the southwestern Louisiana supergroup Lil’ Band of Gold. The Beatles’ "Oh! Darlin" was such a precise homage to swamp pop that Storm says some Louisiana folks thought they were locals at first listen.
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10,000 Musicians, Fans Gather To Honor Fats Domino In New Orleans
The rock and roll pioneer received an unforgettable musical send-off from his hometown
An estimated 10,000 people gathered on Nov. 1 to say farewell to the late rock and roll pioneer Fats Domino, who passed away on Oct. 24 at the age of 89.
In inimitable New Orleans style, the gathered crowd broke out their brass horns, tambourines, and Mardi Gras digs to give Domino an unforgettable "second line" send off as they marched through the city's iconic Ninth Ward and past the singer's former home on Caffin Avenue. Participants included Dominos' grandson Chevis Domino and fellow New Orleans natives Dr. John and Trombone Shorty, as Billboard reports.
"Second line" parades are a classic New Orleans tradition, where in brass musicians, parade watchers and other partygoers hit the streets to form an impromptu procession following a parade's "main line," which is comprised of the actual permitted parade participants.
The tradition is so deeply entwined in New Orleans culture and history that many parts of the city have an annual, semiunofficial "second line season," in which residents engage in spur-of-the-moment second line parades almost every Sunday.
As a New Orleans native and longtime resident prior to his passing, Fats Domino would surely have been touched by the outpouring of support and joyous celebration of his life and contribution to the city's musical culture.
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Essence Fest: 7 Female R&B Acts You Need To Know
The annual music event introduces a slew of rising R&B stars
Essence Fest is the ultimate celebration of Black women and music. And while it manifests that mission through dynamic headline shows featuring some of music’s biggest acts (Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu), it also serves as a major introduction for a slew of up and coming artists. And this year was certainly nothing different. Over the course of the three day event, we have spotted seven rising female acts whose music you need to explore right now.
The summer (and in part Essence Fest) belongs to Ella Mai. Her chart-topping breakout single “Boo’d Up” has induced instant sing-a-longs all week, and the recent release of a remix featuring Nicki Minaj and Quavo of The Migos, shows that the British R&B singer is not slowing down.
If you’re a New Orleans native, Denisia is certainly not a new artist. She first garnered mainstream attention back in 2015 when she was featured on YaBoyBigChoo’s cover of Adele’s hit “Hello”, remixed in the locally popular bounce music style.
The mysterious R&B singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose identity at one point didn’t go beyond a shadow and silhouette, is fully stepping into the spotlight---albeit with her face still slightly concealed by oversized sunglasses. After her soul-stirring performance at the 2018 BET Awards went viral, H.E.R. (an acronym for "Having Everything Revealed") hit the Essence Fest Superlounge to a massive crowd.
A student at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, rising songstress Yanina made her Essence Fest debut this year. Currently working on a yet-to-be-titled EP, she is making her mark thanks to her powerhouse voice, dancing ability and a striking stage presence.
Groups formed via reality shows typically have a shelf-life that expires at the end of a TV season. But every so often there are exceptions. Enter June’s Diary. Formed on the Kelly Rowland-executive produced BET show Chasing Destiny, this talented line-up of singers have the harmonies, moves, and style that puts them on par with the great girl groups of the past.
Mykia Jovan is proving to be a name bubbling in the progressive soul music scene. The New Orleans native’s unique vocal quality has been compared to the likes of Erykah Badu and the late great Billie Holiday. Her debut album Elliyahu is currently available at mykiajovan.com.
After one hears Victory Boyd’s voice, it becomes clear why Jay-Z signed the New Jersey-native to his Roc Nation music label after hearing her perform just two songs. Many have placed her vocally in the lane of Tracy Chapman, Roberta Flack, and Nina Simone. However, her approach to soul and folk music is so fresh and youthful, that she is in a lane of her own.
Dana Blair and Mia X
'On Location: New Orleans' Takes You To Birthplace Of Jazz And Bounce
In this installment of 'On Location,' learn more about the home of bounce music through its artists, culture and food
You've heard the bounce beat or bounce icons like Big Freedia and the late Magnolia Shorty on Beyoncé's "Formation" and Drake's "In My Feelings." Now, the Recording Academy's original music travel series On Location will take you to the birthplace of it all: New Orleans.
Behind the hip-hop genre that has caught the attention of heavy-hitters like Drake and Beyoncé, is a city known for being the birthplace of Jazz, its French influence and culinary richness. On Location: New Orleans will introduce you to the city and artists that have been inspired by it all and have helped developed its sound.
On the first episode New Orleans' very own Dana Blair fills in for host Charlie Travers and takes you to Sportsman's Corner in the French Quarter to meet first lady of Master P's No Limit Records, Mia X, who co-owns the New Orleans gem. Mia X talks about bounce's rise.
"To see it go from 28 years ago and see now we have the whole world dancing, to what we say, the beat," New Orleans rapper Mia X told the Recording Academy. "But they got to come to New Orleans to really get their shake on."
Meet other bounce producers, artists and pioneers in this On Location series.
House of Blues
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House Of Blues Foundation Hosting Music Industry Job Fairs For Youth Across The U.S.
The Music Forward Foundation's free All Access Fest events will feature music industry employers as well as panels and hand-on workshops for young people
Yesterday, Oct. 3, the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation announced they will be bringing back their All Access Fest music industry job fairs to select U.S. cities later this month. Following the event's launch last year, it will return to New Orleans, Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles, and kick off in Orlando.
Registration is free and open to youth ages 16-22 interested in learning more about different music-related career paths and meeting potential employers. The first of the five events takes place next week, on Oct. 8, in New Orleans, followed by Las Vegas on the 17th, Orlando on the 21st, Chicago on the 24th and finally Los Angeles on Oct. 31. All are held at House of Blues/Live Nation run venues.
"We are thrilled to present our second annual All Access Fest for youth interested in music careers—on and off stage," Music Forward Foundation Executive Director Nurit Siegel Smith said in a statement. "This unique program offers young people from under-represented communities free resources and networking opportunities to help them navigate a career in music."
The foundation, via Billboard, reveals that the Recording Academy, House of Blues/Live Nation and Ticketmaster are among the companies represented at the job fair, and notes there will also be "experiential lounges" from GRAMMY U, CD Baby and others.
Hands-on learning stations will also be offered, as well as panels on topics like "The Working Musician's Experience" and "Gender Equality in the Music Industry." Each event is slated to run from 9 a.m. to noon and will, additionally, host performances from alumni of the foundation's artist development programs.
Experts will be on hand from Live Nation, along with and exhibitions by GRAMMY U, CD Baby, Full Sail, Hercules, Hurdl, Massive Act, Music Supervisor and Novel Effect for attendees.
The fairs run from 9 a.m. to noon and also include panels, hands-on technical learning stations, local employers and representatives from post-secondary schools, as well as live performances by alumni from Music Forward's artist development programs.
The foundation was established by the House of Blues in 1993 to bring music and the arts to schools and youth, especially in underserved communities. Recently, the organization announced a new mentorship program, the Ambassadors Council, where established artists including Carlos Santana, Khalid and Lauren Daigle can directly connect with and inspire these communities.
For more info on All Access Fest, including registration, please visit their webpage.