Louisiana Music: Mardi Gras Indians and Zulu

Discover the tradition of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians through their oral history based in song and chants.

Mardi Gras Indians costumes in New Orleans

Mardi Gras Indians don elaborate costumes.

“Here comes Zulu!” and “Here come the Indians!” are excited shouts often heard on Carnival Day. While the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and the Mardi Gras Indians are different in most aspects, they do share the commonality of emerging from New Orleans African American communities and taking to the streets on Fat Tuesday—known popularly as Mardi Gras.

The Zulu organization, a benevolent association, remains best known for its Mardi Gras parade, first presented in 1909. Back then, the parade limited its travels to back-of-town New Orleans neighborhoods. In 1968, its route dramatically changed to include St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street.  Don't worry, if you've missed the chance to see them at Mardi Gras, they put on a Super Sunday parade around St. Joseph's Day in March.

To be gifted with a Zulu coconut, one of the most coveted “throws (trinkets tossed by krewe members) of the Mardi Gras season, gives one bragging rights for years—“I got a coconut!” The tradition of members decorating and handing or flipping out the often metallic-gold painted coconuts, which are referred to as a “golden nuggets,” began in 1910.

Until 1987, the day before Mardi Gras (historically known as Shrove Monday) was rather a quiet day following a weekend full of parades. The introduction of Lundi Gras changed all of that with the Zulu club presenting a festival along the Mississippi River. It's an all-day affair with bands performing on three stages and the fully costumed Zulu characters—the King and Queen, Mr. Big Stuff, the Witch Doctor and more—roaming along the riverfront. At the end, a second line ensues with King Zulu heading to the Spanish Plaza to ceremoniously meet Rex, King of Carnival.

To catch the Zulu parade and the Mardi Gras Indians on Carnival Day, the place to be is where North Claiborne and Orleans avenues intersect. The Mardi Gras Indians, however, do not run on anybody's timetable but their own and do not travel along any specific routes. The tribes remain freewheeling and usually take to the streets from their Chiefs' home.

The tradition of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians is one of the most significant and unique in the United States.

The history of this culture is primarily an oral one told through songs and chants much like the way stories of the past are told by African griots. Most agree that the custom of African Americans “masking” (costuming) Indians began in the mid-19th century as a way to honor the Native Americans with whom slaves found refuge when they sought freedom from their mutual oppressors. Some returned to tell their tales of their philosophical union with the Native Americans. As can be detected in the features of many New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, spousal relationships were formed between the two unified races.

Ostracized by the white New Orleans Carnival krewes and festivities, the Mardi Gras Indians found a way to celebrate the holiday in their own way, in their own communities by taking to the streets donned with feathered “suits" (outfits), “crowns” (headdresses), and chanting songs relevant to their lives. In the early decades, the Indians used what they had to create their suits. They'd find bangles from discarded dresses or mismatched earrings to make their suits sparkle. Inventively, they'd use circular metal industrial cutouts to make their suits ring along with their tambourines.

Nowadays, some 30 to 40 Mardi Gras Indian groups compete for recognition with their spectacular, elaborately adorned, feathered and hand-sewn beaded suits as they ceremoniously met and danced with other tribes.

It takes the Mardi Gras Indians all year to create these works of art which, by those tribes that hold to tradition, are only worn on one Mardi Gras Day, again on St. Joseph's night, for the Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday Parade (the third Sunday in March), the Jazz Fest, and perhaps a few other occasions. As the song goes, “Every year at Carnival time we make a new suit...” The Mardi Gras Indians and Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club carry on the traditions because of strong community and family ties and the passion for continuum.

Jan Ramsey is the founder and author of Offbeat Magazine