Understanding musical genres: Essential elements of the Mardi Gras Indians
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images / Video: Youtube

There are a couple schools of thought when it comes to origins in the oft veiled world of the Mardi Gras Indians. “Some people say that Wild Bill Hickok’s Rodeo show came to New Orleans and they had a parade. African Americans saw that parade and thought it looked cool, so they went out and made their own Indian costumes,” noted Grammy winner Scott Billington.

Related: Read more on the all-AXS Jazz Fest Guide

However, a more provocative origin involves runaway slaves finding sanctuary from slave masters and bounty hunters amongst the native Americans. In an effort to pay tribute to the people who helped them, the grateful African Americans dressed in the manner of their liberators.

Whatever the origins, it is the suits of the Mardi Gras Indians that are the focal point of the show. Each outfit is a uniquely ornate masterpiece that can take many, many months to design and construct. An individual costume may cost thousands of dollars for the materials, which consist of an elaborate assemblage of vibrant colors of feathers, beads and sequins. When it is complete, an outfit can easily weigh over 100 pounds.

Specifics of the Mardi Gras Indians' individual parades such as precise times and exact routes are not announced in advance. Each organization — known as a gang or krewe — has a Big Chief who is responsible for making those decisions. The parade music is comprised of fierce, tribal drums and a collection of traditional songs that are unique to each individual krewe. Typically, when two gangs cross paths in the street, a flamboyant battle for dominance begins.

“Their competition apparently used to be more violent than it is now,” Billington informed. “When one tribe encountered another, some sort of battle really might have ensued! But today, it’s all about who’s got the prettiest suit.”

Fun Fact: James “Sugar Boy” Crawford's song (1953), "Jock-A-Mo" (aka "Iko Iko"), depicts an encounter between two “spy boys” [individuals at the lead of a Mardi Gras Indian procession] where one tells the other that he is going to “set your flag on fire.” The confrontation escalates throughout the song as two Mardi Gras Indian tribes battle for dominance.

According to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras website, “Today when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass one another, you will see a living theater of art and culture. Each tribe's style and dress is on display in a friendly, but competitive manner. They compare one another's art and craftsmanship.”