Homebound at the opening stages of the pandemic (around the time of the “Tom Hanks Crisis”) we started listening, via Internet stream, to WWOZ, roots radio from New Orleans. The music is festive, the catalog is deep: it’s kind of amazing how much music there is about New Orleans. WWOZ could fill days and days with specifically local music.
Metro New Orleans has 1.2 million people, putting it below Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, greater Orlando, Sacramento, just a hair above Fresno in terms of size. But New Orleans punches so far above its weight culturally as to make it a unique exception and special case on a world scale.
Something about listening to an actual radio station with live DJs feels more connective, although Bryson Whitney at Spotify keeps a WWOZ playlist that has way beyond 24 hours of music at the ready.
WWOZ is the station where Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, is a DJ in the 2010-2013 HBO series Treme*, but don’t let that put you off. The DJs for the most part are remarkably unobtrusive.
Tuesday is Mardi Gras. There are enough songs specifically about Mardi Gras to power WWOZ for probably weeks of steady airtime. You will hear Professor Longhair and Wild Tchoupitoulas. It’s funny to observe the transition in music when Ash Wednesday rolls around. They really do have to dial it back!
Previous coverage of New Orleans.
* when Treme first came out we found it a little offputting, it seemed to be criticizing us, the viewers, for not appreciating New Orleans enough. This may have been partially based on a scene in the pilot where some well-meaning tourists are humiliated by Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a street musician. But we rewatched a few years ago and found the series went deeper than we may have perceived. For instance Sonny himself is a transplant. His pretentious attitude is deflated over the course of the series as he experiences a humbling journey related to his efforts to get out of addiction and restore himself. On review ,Treme does a powerful job of capturing not only what’s so special and alluring about New Orleans, but also what’s probably annoying and frustrating about living there. The dilapidations, corruptions, poverty and inevitable hangovers of a place that survives by selling itself as partytown. Some of New Orleans is disgusting, some of it is really refined and beautiful. Those contradictions are captured in the show, full of inhabited characters who aren’t always having good times. Treme is deep and interesting if not always fun.
There are many famous and intriguing streets in New Orleans – Royal, Esplanade, Canal, Basin, Magazine, St. Claude Avenue, St. Charles Avenue, Chartres – but a street that caught my interest is Tchoupitoulas.
Traveled this street while on my way back from Domilise’s, which David Chang once claimed serves the coldest beer in the world.
Tchoupitoulas runs alongside the Mississippi. There is an enormously long, apparently vacant structure that runs along the river and the railroad tracks.
I asked a bartender at Cavan in the Irish Channel about this structure. She told me it’s a set of wharves and warehouses, many of them still privately owned. It was said, according to her, that somewhere under this place Marie Laveau had once had her voodoo church.
“The Wild Tchoupitoulas” were a band of Mardi Gras Indians, who in 1976, with the help of the Neville Brothers and some members of The Meters, recorded an album based on their chants.
Viewers of Treme will recall that Steve Zahn’s character and his girlfriend Annie Tee have a discussion when they move in together about whether they need to keep both of their two CDs of The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Next time I’m on Tchoupitoulas I’m going to visit Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.
Reading up on the New Orleans classic Iko Iko, made famous by the Dixie Cups, I find myself reading about Mobilian Jargon.
Mobilian Jargon (also Mobilian trade language, Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw–Choctaw trade language, Yamá) was a pidgin used as a lingua franca among Native American groups living along the Gulf of Mexico around the time of European settlement of the region. It was the main language among Indian tribes in this area, mainly Louisiana. There is evidence indicating its existence as early as the late 17th to early 18th century. The Indian groups that are said to have used it were the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.
A possible meaning?:
Another possible translation interprets the third and fourth lines as:
Chokma finha an dan déyè
Chokma finha ane.
Chickasaw words “chokma” (“it’s good”) and “finha” (“very”), Creole “an dan déyè” from French Creole “an dans déyè” (“at the back”), and the Creole “ane” from the French “année” (“year”).
It’s very good at the rear
It’s a very good year.
What about the possible voodoo origin?
Louisiana Voodoo practitioners would recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. The practitioner, the horse, waves a flag representing a certain god to call that god into himself or herself. Setting a flag on fire is a curse. The man in green, who either changes personality or whose appearance is deceiving, would be recognized in Voodoo as possessed by a peaceful Rada spirit, inclining to green clothes and love magic. The man in red, who is being sent to kill, would likely be possessed by a vengeful Petwo spirit.
Haitian ethnologist Milo Rigaud published a transcription in 1953 of a Voodoo chant, “Crabigne Nago”. This chant to invoke the Voodoo mystère Ogou Shalodeh is similar to “Iko, Iko” in both pentameter and phones.
Liki, liki ô! Liki, liki ô!
Papa Ogou Jacoumon,
Papa Ogou Shalodeh.
More on the topic can be found in an article in a 2008 issue of Southern Anthropologist – we find ourselves amidst controversy:
Right from the beginning, Galloway (2006: 225-226) belittles the amount of linguistic information available, which she evidently takes as a justifi cation for not addressing specifi c linguistic and historical data that Crawford and I have accumulated and analyzed over the years. Although Galloway (2006: 228) recognizes my book of some four hundred pages as “the most thorough study of Mobilian jargon (sic) now available,” she oddly does not use a single piece of linguistic data from it in her own essay; nor does she review the substantial amount of sociohistorical documentation that both Crawford and I assembled for what anthropologists and linguists had long thought lost. Instead, Galloway (2006: 240) has curiously drawn on a short, seven-page essay by Kennith H. York (1982) for inspiration and “the insight of a sophisticated native speaker of Choctaw,” which demands a short appraisal
The linguistic origin of the song is the subject of a 2009 Offbeat article by Drew Hinshaw, who traces it to Ghana:
One afternoon, 1965, the three Louisianan sisters/cousins who gave you “Chapel of Love,” unaware that the studio’s tapes were still rolling, recorded for posterity two minutes of delightful historical intrigue that had been circulating in oral obscurity for generations unknowable. “Iko, Iko,” they called that tune. The English chunks of the record came from an all-too-obvious source—R&B singer “Sugar Boy” Crawford who claimed he never saw “just dues” from the top 40 hit—but the cryptic refrain of the Carnival standard is of a lost language, entirely mysterious: “Eh na, Iko, Iko-ahn-dé, jaco-mo-fi-na-né.” You know these words. “Sugar Boy” said he remembered them from the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of his salad days, while the girl group said they heard it from their grandma, Which is where the song begins: “My grandmaw and yo’ grandmaw….”
Reminded me of this cool, dialogue-less scene in Twelve Years A Slave which probably tells us about as much as can be known about the earliest origins of New Orleans music:
Not sure why I bothered writing this post, as I already texted with MMW about this topic (he suggested I look into Pidgin Delaware) but the oddest topics have lured readers to Helytimes, and really, what else is this site for but
1) to peer into the past until the view becomes a crazy fantastical kaleidoscope
2) to celebrate the rich weirdness of the world, and
3) to delight that there are people out there fighting over Mobilian Jargon?