When we can, my wife and I like to start our days at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians seem the best way to reconnect with the festival, with the city, and with its people. The Indians are a neighborhood tradition, dated by some as far back as the Civil War and even earlier. In these tough, proud neighborhoods, there’s no more manly man than a Big Chief, dressed in a suit of brightly colored beads and feathers that he made himself.
One of our favorite chiefs is Howard Miller, whose “gang” is Creole Wild West. This is a crew that claims to be the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans, dating themselves back to 1721. That’s not necessarily why we like them. A lot of the appeal for us has to do with Cook himself. Although he’s been increasingly standing in for the ailing Big Chief, Walter Cook, taking over front-man duties, Howard is uncommonly laid back. Like a lot of chiefs, he doesn’t mask for Jazz Fest. That’s something to be saved for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day (the latter is traditionally the most important for Mardi Gras Indians). Instead, he leaves dress-up for the high-ranking in his gang —the Spy Boy, the Flag Boy, the Wild Man. Howard himself saunters on stage in white polo shirt and distressed jeans (fashionably worn open at the knee), wearing tinted glasses and a straw fedora from under which peeks a blue-and-white bandana. “Nobody kneels and nobody bow, we’re Creole Wild West and we don’t know how!… INDIANS!” Thumping of drums, rattling tambourine, and the low cry from the gang: “Oooh-ooh!” Big Chief: “Madi cu defei! Indian Red! Indian Red!”
There follows a call-and-response chant of floating verses as old as Mardi Gras itself. “We won’t bow down. (We won’t bow down!) On that dirty ground. (That dirty ground!) Oh I love to hear him call, my Indian Red!”
There are chants like “Indian Red” that are part of just about every Mardi Gras Indian performance — “Shoo-fly,” “Hoo-nah-hey,” “Hey Poky Way — some of which have become actual songs and hit singles. (Every elder statesman at Jazz Fest has to sing “Iko Iko,” from Dr. John and Irma Thomas to the Dixie Cups and any of the Neville Brothers.) But for most of the Indian tribe performances at Jazz Fest, these are stripped down chants driven by unadorned percussion — congas, bass drums, cowbell, tambourines, and maybe — as a concession to the stage performance rather than a parade — trap drums with cymbals.
So Big Howard leads his crew with raps about the “gumbo city. . . . I got a big ol’ gang, and look at ’em, every one of ’em is pretty!… I told my mother, I told my little wife, I’m gonna bring me this gang if it costs me my life! ”
There’s a rap about clearing a path for the tribe on Mardi Gras day (“Hell out the way!”) And then one long rap:
“Swam the ocean and I didn’t get wet.
Slow walked through hell and I didn’t even sweat.”
A hundred soldiers had me against a mountain wall,
by the time the sun set, I had killed them all.
Killed 98 and then I escaped,
thought about what they meant to do do,
then I went back and killed the other two.”