Midwestern Mardi Gras

Of all the things I thought I’d miss when I moved away from Louisiana, Mardi Gras was not one of them.

Before I moved to Louisiana, my mental image of Mardi Gras involved a debauchery-filled Bourbon Street that dealt largely in beads, booze, and lots of boobs. You know, the Three B’s. (Were you to replace that last ‘B’ with ‘beards,’ you’d be speaking my language.) Anyway, it’s only natural that my mind would venture in the direction of the traditional Three B’s, since most tourists who travel to Mardi Gras for the first time will likely experience some version of that picture, and they’re the ones telling tales when they return from vacation.

But after moving to Louisiana and living in New Orleans specifically, I saw a wildly different picture than what once existed in my head. For locals and seasoned tourists who know a thing or two, Mardi Gras is a celebration of the grandest kind. It’s a time of year where, sure, you will probably drink yourself silly for over two weeks straight (B #1), and you will encounter your fair share of beads (B #2). More than that, though, it’s punctuated by colorful costumes, wildly fantastical parade floats, deliciously spicy fare, good-spirited camaraderie, and music. Lots. Of. Music.

The music they play during Mardi Gras–all the classics from Professor Longhair to Dr. John to Louis Armstrong to The Meters–imparts a feeling on that time. The musical traditions existent in the state link past to present, and maybe even signal to the future. Louisiana is a beautiful place for many reasons, one of those being how the music makes the moments, and the moments make the music.

One year, I somehow miraculously found parking just outside the Quarter, traversed the insanely packed and police-barricaded Canal Street, and made my way to One Eyed Jacks to see Morning 40 Federation, who had reunited to do a Carnival show. As if their New Orleans gutter punk/raunchy rock sound wasn’t magnificent enough live, I was going to hear it how it was meant to be heard: during crazy-ass, anything goes Mardi Gras.

My first Mardi Gras outside of Louisiana was something of a shock, especially on the day itself. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of the U.S. doesn’t recognize Mardi Gras in nearly the same way, and if they do pay it any mind it’s usually just a special bar night involving the stereotypes surrounding the holiday aka at least two of The Three B’s.

As I saw my Louisiana friends post update after update in the weeks leading up to and then finally on Mardi Gras, I grew homesick in a surprisingly powerful way. What’s a girl to do after living through five years of Mardis Gras only to find herself in the sub-zero temperatures of the Midwest? The colors replaced by grays, the sounds replaced by the wind howling a bit too loudly, and the revelry replaced by work.

Naturally, I followed the moment by following the music.

I was lucky to find two such bands playing The Iron Post in Urbana, IL on Tuesday, a traditional jazz band by the name of New Orleans Jazz Machine, and a Cajun/Zydeco-influenced band by the name of Cornstalkers Cajun bandFrom the first soundings of clarinet, I felt better, and that feeling turned into a firecracker heart explosion when the trombone really started to sound. My vagus nerve was firing and I felt in love with the world thanks to sounds that have woven themselves into a version of home for me. That love was only compounded by the button accordion, fiddles, and plucky bass lines the Cornstalkers played when they later took the stage.

As anyone who’s visited Louisiana knows, the music invades every aspect of life there. I know what it means to miss New Orleans, because the sounds that define that space (more than its geographical boundaries) form a version of home for me. The music there is a part of my blood now; it shaped me in ways I never fully realized until I stepped outside the state and wholeheartedly missed what my ears had feasted on for years. For a few brief hours on a Tuesday in central Illinois, I was able to connect with that sound again, I was able to go home.

Moving around a good deal as I’ve done ever since I was a little girl–first for my father’s career and then for my own–means that “home” is an elusive concept tied less and less to place. Home, for me, is music. Hearing Louisiana through the strains of a fais do-do or a traditional jazz number only reinforced that music is a time machine, creating moments that can transport you. If home is where the heart is then mine is scattered across many lands, existent in every beat and note that sounds out across those spaces, but especially especially especially in a place down south where brass mixes with washboard mixes with fiddle mixes with life.

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