Sometime in the mid-70’s I was watching TV with my father when we stumbled across a documentary on PBS about a strange and little known (outside of New Orleans) tradition of dressing up like Indians and parading during Mardi Gras. We watched with fascination and learned about the practice of sewing elaborate suits of feathers and beads, parading with your tribe or gang and, most importantly, about the incredible music that went with the practice. The best I can figure out was that the show was part of a series called American Patchwork and the particular episode might have been called “Feets Don’t Fail Me Now - Mardi Gras Indians.” My eyes were opened. This was the most exotic sound I had ever heard come out of an American mouth. When they showed the Indians, who I later found out were The Wild Tchoupitoulas in full regalia, dancing and playing “Meet De Boys On The Battlefront” with its memorable line “The Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp” I just about flipped. Here was something that was uniquely American but was completely foreign to me. They might as well have been performing a Chinese opera in Finnish for all I could tell. It was completely new and completely wonderful to me. The next day I went to good old King Bee Records on Evans and when I asked for something with New Orleans Indians on it, he seemed to know what I was talking about and pointed me toward The Wild Tchoupitoulas’ one and only album.
Released in 1976, The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a collaboration of the Indian gang (Big Chief Jolly, Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Trail Chief and Second Chief) accompanied by Big Chief Jolly’s nephews, some of whom happened to be members of The Meters. The rest of them, after this experience, formed The Neville Brothers and became legends in their own right. If there is a Rosetta Stone that connects all New Orleans tradition with the modern world of recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas is it. It is as exciting to listen to this album in 2013 as it was in 1976. It remains absolutely unlike anything else.
The music contained on The Wild Tchoupitoulas is equal parts rock and funk, but the lyrics have more in common with the nursery rhyme tradition or even “the dozens,” the African-American boasting game that ultimately led to Hip-Hop. The Indians sing about their practices leading up to Mardi Gras, but the majority of the songs are modified chants which allow the gang to boast and taunt the other gangs while parading during Mardi Gras. It is an amazing and beautiful thing to see. It embodies some very important American values: pride, craftsmanship and fun. The men who participate in the gang are normal, family men the rest of the year, but during this period they become benevolent warrior kings preparing for a ritualistic battle. Of course, the spoils of this war are all for fun. It’s really about a strong sense of community and pride of place. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is an incredibly colorful and tuneful version of the Rotary Club or The Shriners. There are mysterious, portentous, historic, quasi-religious references and secrets, but ultimately it’s a bunch of guys dressing up and playing in the streets. As expected, the New Orleans version has the best music.
The Songs are all winners, and many have become standards of the American festivity tradition. “Brother John (Iko Iko),” “Hey Pock A-Way,” “Indian Red” and “Hey Mama (Indians Comin’)” will probably be familiar to you, as they have been covered by countless bands and have entered into the American Songbook as surely as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Johnny B. Goode” have. The less known songs like “Meet De Boys” and “Big Chief Got A Golden Crown” are just as infectious and still maintain their air of the exotic. They are filled with terms and situations that while not familiar sound like such a good time. The Neville Brothers/Meters band shine through on every track and are as much the story here as the Indians, providing both lead and backing vocals and playing with economy and soul. But it is ultimately the discovery of a cultural tradition so different and so appealing that draws me back to this funky wonder.