The narrow streets of the French Quarter are crammed with people; people in purple wigs, patchwork waistcoats and hats festooned with brightly coloured feathers. Music spills out of the bars and in one of them a giant of a man with a sousaphone wrapped around him like a silver python hammers out a bass line. Outside, people call up at the wrought iron balconies with hoarse voices. Their pleas are answered with strings of coloured beads that they hang around their necks: already heavy with plastic.
We make our way through the crowds and the drizzle to Bourbon Street, a place where inhibitions are a distant memory. A graveyard for morals and good taste, it’s so brash and garish that it makes your eyes water. But then it always has been, ever since the days of speakeasies and cat houses – the early days of jazz.
The rest of the night is a blur of bright lights, music and alcohol as we lurch from bar to bar. The gutters are thick with discarded plastic glasses and bead necklaces.
New Orleans is in the grip of Mardi Gras, the greatest party on earth, a fortnight or so of festivities leading up to Mardi Gras Day, after which lent begins and belts are tightened, or are supposed at any rate. I’ve arrived with a group of friends for the final four days of the party. It’s my first Mardi Gras and my first time in the city. The driver of the shuttle from the airport grins from ear to ear when I tell him. “You all gunna have a lot of fun up here,” he says.
The heart of the festival and the source of the beads that choke the city streets are the parades. They have been going on for weeks but the weekend before Mardi Gras things begin in earnest. Each parade is organised by a krewe, a private club initially designed to support members and their families in times of financial difficulty or family tragedy but now primarily dedicated to the building of pirate ships or animals out of fibreglass. The krewe chooses a theme for their parade and elects a king and a queen who board special floats dressed in suitably regal attire, usually heavy on the sequins.
On Saturday night the Krewe of Endymion traverses Canal Street with a stream of fairy tale themed floats – ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘The Gingerbread Man’ – and on Sunday, the Krewe of Bacchus comes out to play in uptown. Their floats are decorated with bunches of grapes and scenes of revelry and they have appointed Will Ferrell their king. He grins inanely and waves to the crowds sporting a gold crown and a crimson cloak.
Thousands of people line the parade routes waiting to catch the bead necklaces, spongy footballs (the American kind) and cuddly toys thrown by the krewes. There are families gathered around barbeques roasting corn and crayfish, gaggles of old men with coolers of beer, and children raised above the crowds on step ladders painted with Mardi Gras colours (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power). Even in rough parts of town the spirit of Mardi Gras abides. I walked without a care around housing projects and into liquor stores populated by men with rheumy eyes and prison tats. At any other time of year you would be lucky to leave with your wallet.
That’s not to say that, even during Mardi Gras, this is a town without problems or divisions. Among the Bacchus floats were a pair of giant apes, their features clearly intended to caricature those of a black male and female. Beneath their furrowed brows were startled eyes, blue eyes like those of the children of black women fathered by slave owners. The atmosphere was one of confusion and of deep discomfort. Was this an awful joke or a clumsy attempt at excoriating racial stereotypes? The crowds elected to vent their disapproval with a hailstorm of beads.
In stark contrast, the famous Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day is a explicit celebration of New Orleans’ African heritage. We watched as floats decorated with palm trees, leopards and Zulu warriors trundled under an underpass that echoed with the pounding bass of a gigantic sound system. The hand-painted coconuts thrown from the Zulu floats are one of the great prizes of Mardi Gras. Fighting through a forest of raised arms, I catch three and have the bruises to show for it.
But parades are not just about floats and throws. There are pompom waving high school dance troops in outfits sure to make their fathers weep, men on horseback topped and tailed with cowboy hats and spurs, and of course the marching bands. The sound the bands make is unbelievable, it hits you like a wave and you can’t help but smile. On Mardi Gras day, I watched in awe as a young trumpeter, his brow shiny with sweat, took in a great gulp of air, forced his trumpet onto his lips, pushed in his marked cheeks with his free hand and screamed a note above the rest of the band. My knees went weak.
This is a city obsessed with music, a city in which marching bands have police escorts to get them to parades on time and surely the only city in the world where being a respected tuba player makes you a minor celebrity.
On our final afternoon in the city we set out in search of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. In tribute to Indian tribes who aided runaway slaves, members of New Orleans’ African American population take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day dressed in elaborate costumes, hand stitched with feathers and thousands of sequins. Each Indian tribe consists of only a few members; a king, a queen, a child scout and sometimes a witch doctor dressed in animal skins. If two tribes happen to meet they stage a fight for the entertainment of the crowds who follow them. I’m told that the weren’t always so staged.
All too soon Ash Wednesday dawns and the party is over. An army of street sweepers descend on the city and New Orleans goes back to work.
Almost everything about Mardi Gras is tacky but it’s unashamedly so and therein lies its greatness. No one makes apologies for the bad taste, the excess, or the mountains of discarded plastic. They’re all too busy having a good time.
– Thomas Rees
An edited version of this article appeared on wanderlust.co.uk