Mardi Gras

Selected titles reviewed in Choice about Mardi Gras.

Encyclopedia of religious rites, rituals, and festivals, ed. by Frank A. Salamone. Routledge, 2004. 487p ISBN 0415941806, $150.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2005

This latest volume in Routledge’s “Encyclopedias of Religion and Society” series, like the preceding volumes, offers strong multidisciplinary and global approaches. Salamone (anthropology, Iona College) gathers 130 signed, scholarly entries treating various aspects of religious ritual. Topics covered include the expected (Easter, Mardi Gras, Buddhism, hunting rituals, marriage rituals) but also some that are startling (Star Trek conventions, Graceland, and Jane Austen’s home as places of pilgrimage). The entries can be understood by readers unfamiliar with the topics covered, but the work is suitable for all levels of scholars. The bibliographies that end each article are fairly extensive and contain recent publications. Sixty sidebars feature primary source materials such as the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in Luke, a table of Buddhist festivals, and puberty rites in West Africa from a 1946 monograph of the American Ethnological Society. The index is excellent. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduates and higher. —J. E. Sheets, Baylor University

Mitchell, Reid. All on a Mardi Gras day: episodes in the history of New Orleans Carnival. Harvard, 1995. 243p ISBN 067401622X, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 1995 

A blending of history, sociology, anthropology, folklore, and personal opinion, this work gives a fresh interpretation to many traditions of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Familiar with the holiday since his childhood in the Crescent City, Mitchell offers some new explanations of the motivations behind white upper-class carnival balls and parades, and of the cultural roots of the black contribution to Mardi Gras. He pays special attention to how current events and feelings reflected Mardi Gras celebrations of the past, as well as to the psychological undercurrents revealed in the behavior of participants; the chapter “Mardi Gras Indians” is especially revealing. Another topic Mitchell explores is the Mardi Gras interplay of ethnic groups and their conflicts, e.g., “Creoles and American,” “African-Creoles,” and “Americans and Immigrants.” The early krewes of Rex and Comus are discussed, as is the black krewe of Zulu and the homosexual carnival balls. The book is well illustrated and complemented with a brief bibliographical essay and footnotes. Summing Up: General readers, upper-division undergraduates, and above. —J. Jackson, Southeastern Louisiana University

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the dead: circum-Atlantic performance. Columbia, 1996. 328p ISBN 0231104618 pbk, $17.50.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 1996 

This is one of those rare books that alters the landscape of the territory it covers. By focusing on “circum-Atlantic [rather than trans-Atlantic] memory,” Roach links the cultural history of England with that of America, primarily with the festivities of New Orleans and tangentially with the Caribbean and with enslaved and emancipated Africans. Identifying a basin of intercultural history created in part by the trade in commodities and human flesh that traversed the Atlantic, Roach establishes the centrality of such interaction, reflected emblematically in specific cultural performances (e.g., the funeral of Thomas Betterton along with the visit of four “Indian kings” from the New World to London in 1710; a variety of New Orleans Mardi Gras activities and legal “plays” of power from the late 19th century on; and finally a New Orleans jazz funeral). In Roach’s convincing analysis, each of these events bears centrally on the others. This wide-ranging book never seems disjunctive or haphazard. Calling on Richard Schechner’s idea of performance as “restored behavior” (see The Future of Ritual, 1933) the author develops a “genealogy of performance” that focuses on traditions transmitted through memory, place of performance gatherings, and performance that expresses cultural collisions. Roach’s thorough primary and secondary research acknowledges his predecessors (e.g., Samuel Kinser’s Carnival, American Style, 1990, and Michael P. Smith’s Mardi Gras Indians, 1994). The vocabulary of the book is beautifully expressive but not simple. Summing Up:Recommended for students and scholars who wish to understand the vital intertwining of “Old,” “New,” and “Third” world cultural history. —M. C. Riggio, Trinity College (CT)

Sublette, Ned. The world that made New Orleans: from Spanish silver to Congo Square. Lawrence Hill Books, 2008. 360p ISBN 1556527306, $24.95; ISBN 9781556527302, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2008

Sublette’s latest book should be of great interest to nonspecialist readers of history and students of African American music and the culture of New Orleans. The bulk of the book recounts the history of Louisiana from the earliest colonial enterprises through statehood, based exclusively on secondary sources. While this limits the book’s appeal to students of Louisiana history, the author’s dedication to placing the familiar events in global and hemispheric economic, political, and social contexts makes the history relevant and understandable. The book contains several contemporary maps, but the inclusion of additional specifically drawn illustrative maps would strengthen the narrative. Throughout the book, Sublette features the roots of African American musical tradition. This coverage concludes with an absolutely fascinating ethnographic chapter on the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians and the struggle to preserve that cultural heritage in the post-Hurricane Katrina environment. The book merits strong consideration by libraries that collect African American music and culture, ethnomusicology, and the cultural heritage of New Orleans and Louisiana. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries. —B. M. Banta, Arkansas State University

Turner, Richard Brent. Jazz religion, the second line, and black New Orleans. Indiana, 2009. 182p ISBN 9780253353573, $55.00; ISBN 9780253221209 pbk, $21.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2010

Turner (Univ. of Iowa) has written an outstanding study of jazz religion and the second line in New Orleans, the “most African city” in the US. This study is both personal and academic, reflecting the path chosen by previous scholars of vodou such as Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, and Karen McCarthy Brown. The study explores “the historical and contemporary roots of the relationship of jazz to indigenous religion and spirituality in the culture and performances of New Orleans’ second lines.” Turner examines the history of African diasporic religious influences and musical traditions through the performances of African dancing and drumming in Congo Square and the powerful spiritual influence of the 19th-century vodou priestess Marie Laveau. The second lines comprise the musicians and dancers of the various Mardi Gras Indian tribes that participate in Carnival events and the jazz funerals of the city. Turner includes a fascinating comparison of New Orleans’ second line performers and the rara bands of Haiti. He reveals how the healing arts of vodou helped him through the grieving process with his mother’s death. The book has photos and descriptions of contemporary jazz funerals. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers. —L. H. Mamiya, Vassar College

Vaz, Kim Marie. The “Baby Dolls”: breaking the race and gender barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition. Louisiana State, 2013. 178p ISBN 9780807150702, $22.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2013

Vaz (education, Xavier Univ. of Louisiana) provides a fascinating glance into the Mardi Gras masking tradition through the lives of those who were most marginalized. This tradition, which continues today, was started in the early 1900s by African American women who worked as prostitutes in New Orleans’s segregated version of Storyville, a legalized red light district. In this first book on the topic, the author brings to light the use of Mardi Gras as a vehicle to empower those who on every other day of the year were kept down because of their gender, race, economic status, work, and even the degree of darkness of skin. Vaz touches on the Baby Dolls’ use of music (mostly jazz), dance, costume, and performance art. Seeing carnival through this feminist lens is a treat, as most masking traditions are male dominated, such as the Skull and Bone Gang, the Zulus, and the Mardi Gras Indians. The book concludes with transcripts of interviews with Baby Doll members and a time line of Baby Doll groups, members, and attire. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —D. M. Braquet, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Verderber, Stephen. Delirious New Orleans: manifesto for an extraordinary American city. Texas, 2009. 252p ISBN 9780292717534, $45.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2009

This extensively illustrated volume combines a photographic and explanatory paean to vernacular architecture and folk art in pre-Katrina New Orleans with an account of the results of Katrina’s damage to these objects and the struggles of preservation in the city since the disaster. Verderber, an architect and longtime professor of architecture at Tulane, now at Clemson, presents an impassioned discussion of these topics, accompanied by his color photographs, often juxtaposed in before-and-after pairings, with some additional historical photographs. He also writes eloquently about the deterioration of the city and the loss of local character even before Katrina, the role of race and class, the power structure, and the influence of Mardi Gras on the mindset of the city’s inhabitants. A very personal account, culminating in a long chapter on the ultimately unsuccessful fight to save an important modernist church, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the volume is extensively documented with voluminous endnotes, representing the author’s substantial research supplanting his own experiences and views. Although certainly not an unbiased account, this work provides a valuable supplement to the extensive literature on New Orleans and the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above; general readers. —D. Stillman, University of Delaware

Ware, Carolyn E. Cajun women and Mardi Gras: reading the rules backward. Illinois, 2006. 233p ISBN 0252031385, $65.00; ISBN 0252073770 pbk, $24.95; ISBN 9780252031380, $65.00; ISBN 9780252073779 pbk, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2008

English professor Ware (Louisiana State Univ.) presents a fascinating, informative study of a thin slice of Louisiana’s Cajun culture. Her book focuses on the changing roles that women have played and continue to play in the Mardi Gras runs of the Tee Mamou and Basile communities of southwest Louisiana. While the narrative is at times repetitive, it never drags. Ware does an excellent job of explaining the traditions reflected in the Mardi Gras runs and how the participation of women, at least in the communities under consideration, has evolved within and around those traditions. Their roles ironically have been both a catalyst stimulating change and a stabilizing agent promoting preservation. Excellent maps and photographs support the narrative. This work merits serious consideration by academic and public libraries that have collections focusing on Louisiana, Mardi Gras, Cajun culture, women’s studies, and folklore. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —B. M. Banta, Arkansas State University

Watts, Lewis. New Orleans suite: music and culture in transition, by Lewis Watts and Eric Porter. California, 2013. 126p ISBN 9780520273887 pbk, $34.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2013

In New Orleans Suite, Watts and Porter (both, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz) pay homage to the powerful relationships between culture, history, music, art, dance, and personal expression in the Crescent City. Five essays are connected through dozens of black-and-white photographs—some striking, some poignant, some tragic—that serve as witness to a culture as it moves through and beyond the disasters of Katrina and the levee failures. Using institutions such as Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, jazz funerals, and parading, the book dips into the rich heritage of rituals that not only ground the peoples of the city but also serve as a cultural postcard to the rest of the world, inviting them to take part. Hundreds of books have been written about Katrina, but this one provides an interesting take on how resilience looks, breathes, and acts. Porter’s previous publications include What Is This Thing Called Jazz?(2002); Watts is the coauthor of Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era (2006). Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through researchers; general readers. —D. M. Braquet, University of Tennessee, Knoxville