Mardi Gras Voodoo Print E-mail
Mardi Gras is the celebration of the final day of indulgence before Ash Wednesday and the austerity, fasting and penitence of Lent.  Voodoo does not separate the sacred from the secular since everything in life, like every day of the week is an interaction with the spirits.  Mardi Gras in New Orleans has two distinct expressions, one Creole and other American. The Creole Mardi Gras is an irreverent day of individual self  expression and excess. The American Mardi Gras is more organized and related to parades and the Krewes that organize them. Secrecy and masking are twisted together with tradition, history and freedoms that one would not enjoy on any other day.

The classic Voodoo and Mardi Gras intersections appears to have occurred in 1884 when the gatherings in Congo Square were forcibly ended and then reemerged as processions. In the classic West African Voodoo model, these societies, called gangs, were structured with territories, shy boys, flag boys, chiefs and wild men. The earliest such known appearances were the Creole Wild West who assumed the guise of Native American Plaines Indians.

According to sources such as Jelly Roll Morton, who at one time was a spy boy and an intimate of Voodoo, the nonsensical syllables are fundamentals in the indigenous  music of New Orleans and the development of jazz. During a Voodoo ceremony, the primary object is for the participants to become possessed by the spirits by means of the music and dancing. Upon being possessed, evidence of this effect is given by the demonstration of the person’s speaking in nonsensical syllables, (like speaking in tongues), or the undecipherable “langage” of the Voodoo spirits. When the dispersed Congo Square groups reappeared on Mardi Gras as gangs, in the guise of Plaines Indians, they danced and chanted in various choruses of nonsensical syllables. Many of these chants have now become recorded musical ventures. Songs like the well known, “Iko-Iko” are constructed mainly of uninterpretable nonsensical syllables. Some will claim they are long forgotten Indian chants, some that they severely corrupted Creole French patois and some confess the words come to them in dreams.

It has become a sensitive point of controversy to define the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians. Ever since emerging out from the back streets of New Orleans in the 1960’s to become a Mardi Gras and musical mainstay the question has asked, why Indians? Many claim it is due to a mutual empathy with Native Americans as oppressed peoples and warriors. Others are more comfortable with the linking to Congo Square and the pure African Voodoo traditions. Some claim both. Some claim neither.

A far more direct Voodoo – Mardi Gras link occurs in the activities and processions of the Skull and Bone gangs on Mardi Gras day. Because this group is not as colorful, has not commercialized and maintains a serious purpose, it is neither a popular or well known. This group gathers before dawn on Mardi Gras day in Congo Square to call on the African and Voodoo spirits to deputize them for their tasks ahead. Dressed in black sweat suits painted with skeleton bones and wearing large home made paper-mache skull heads, they filter off into the lower 6th and 7th wards just beyond the French Quarter.  Their mission, besides the celebration of Mardi Gras, is to seek out small children and warn to live their lives rightly least the skull and bone spirits should have to come to them too soon. This group has strongly African spiritual ties and motives. Ironically, this group predates the Mardi Gras Indians, going back to 1819.

The Baby Dolls are recently revitalized and part of the Mardi Gras day mix with the Skull and Bone Men and the Indians. Very much like some of the others, they seem to have downtown and uptown contingents and explanations of their origins. The downtown Baby Dolls are most closely associated with the Skull and Bone gangs and spirituality. Some of their members view what they are doing as a compliment to the message and purpose of the Skull and Bone men. They represent the turning of night into day and the celebration of life and the life force of sexuality. Dressed coquetteishly, but sensually as Baby Dolls they dance and parade in a manner reminiscent of the gestures and gesticulations of the old Voodoo Calinda dances.

In spite of the mindset that Voodoo is a stationary ritual exercise, it is just as importantly, and literally, a procession, (called egungun), in which the same intentions and displays exist. Voodoo in New Orleans has both conceived and fused with the city’s musical and festival cultures. To find a real Voodoo ceremony today, one need not know where to look for it, but how to look for it.

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