Mardi Gras Indian's Effect on Music Evolution

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Words: 1272 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

Words: 1272|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Jan 4, 2019

The Mardi Gras Indian culture was created by slaves who fused aspects of different cultures that inspired them. This concept of combining influences is what continues to cause all types of cultures to evolve. The Mardi Gras Indians have effectively influenced many different types of music using the celebratory traditions that occur in New Orleans every year. To this day, musicians who were influenced by the Mardi Gras Indians continue to create new types of music that inspire each other and people around them.

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In the early United States of America, slaves in New Orleans were set free because the recession rendered the masters unable to afford to keep them alive. The freed slaves fled into the wilderness where they discovered Native American tribes. These tribes took the slaves in, offering them shelter, food, water, and culture. The slaves joined the Native American culture but also incorporated their African cultural aspects into the community (Lipsitz 99). Many details of how the slaves and Native American tribes interacted are shrouded in mystery.

Many African Americans today celebrate their Black Indian heritage. One such celebration of this heritage is the Mardi Gras Indian movement in New Orleans. Every year on Mardi Gras day, dozens of Black Indian tribes celebrate with dancing, music, and elaborate, hand-made costumes which resemble Native American dress. Each tribe member makes their own costume over the course of the year. The costumes are usually made with colorful feathers and beadwork. The Black Indians then take to the streets with their costumes, chanting in a call and response style, dancing, and playing drums and other musical instruments (Smith 43). This unique celebration has been kept alive through several generations.

The most defining and prominent aspect of Mardi Gras Indian music is rhythm. While some participants in the parade carry saxophones, trumpets, or other melodic instruments, the heart of the music comes from those carrying drums and tambourines or just clapping along (Alexander). The syncopated claves that come from the rhythmic instrumentalists draw influence from New Orleans second line as well as traditional Native American rhythms. The unique rhythms provide the foundation for melodic instruments such as saxophones to create melodies and solos. It also provides a foundation for the people taking part in Mardi Gras Indian chanting (Smith 43).

What makes the Mardi Gras Indian culture unique is that it was created by combining traditions from two separate cultures. The Mardi Gras Indians pick aspects from each culture and use them together to create a new tradition that celebrates heritage in an extremely creative fashion. The Black Indians are fundamentally celebrating freedom. When their ancestors were enslaved, they practiced freedom through African song and dance in Congo Square. These art forms were then combined with European classical music to create Jazz and Blues (Lipsitz 99). The slaves who fled to Native American tribes combined those two cultures to create new traditions which the Mardi Gras Indians celebrate today.

African people have created similar traditions and cultures in different parts of the world, often combining traditions from African celebrations with cultural aspects of lands outside of Africa. One such celebration is Junkanoo. Held in Nassau, Bahamas on Christmas day, the Afro-Caribbean people dress in elaborate costumes, dancing, singing and creating music while parading through town. This particular tradition is held on Christmas because when slavery was still prominent, Christmas would be one of the few days in the year that slaves were given a day off. Instead of celebrating Jesus, the slaves celebrated freedom with song and dance. Junkanoo is a festival which continues the tradition of celebrating freedom. Though it does not feature the same costumes or exact same music as Mardi Gras Indians, many similar themes and celebratory traditions exist between the two (Sands 75) . This is an example of how African people are able to combine aspects of different cultures to help them evolve in multiple situations and parts of the world.

There are many Mardi Gras Indian songs and musicians that have influenced all different genres of music in the past. Some Mardi Gras Indian songs such as Iko Iko became popular hits in America at the time (Lipsitz 99). Other pop songs drew heavy influence from Mardi Gras Indian rhythms. Several famous musicians, particularly jazz musicians, grew up as Mardi Gras Indians and still participate in the celebration today. Donald Harrison Jr. is a jazz saxophonist who grew up under his father who was the Chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe known as Guardians of the Flame. Since his father passed away, Harrison took his place as chief and now leads the tribe in celebration every year, often with his saxophone in hand. He plays saxophone and leads traditional chants on stage and in parades while wearing his costume (Wyckoff). Harrison played with famous jazz groups such as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He’s also lead his own group where he played original music. Harrison even recorded an album completely inspired by Mardi Gras Indians where he collaborated with Dr. John and played original pieces as well as classics such as Ja-Ki-Mo-Fi-Na-Hay (Spera).

Black Indian people have been using Mardi Gras Indian music to influence and evolve other musical genres and are continuing to do so today with music that defies labels. One musician jazz musician who has done this to the fullest extent so far is Christian Scott, also known as Christian Atunde Adjuah. Scott is Donald Harrison’s trumpet playing nephew. He grew up in the Mardi Gras Indian culture and is now using that influence in his music. The cover of Christian Scott’s 2012 album shows him wearing his Mardi Gras Indian costume which appears to be made primarily from peach colored feathers (Jarenwattananon). One may be surprised by the sound of the music after looking at the album cover. Scott’s music is draws influence from many different genres including Mardi Gras Indian music, yet it sounds very contemporary and appeals to younger audiences with influences from alternative rock groups such as Radiohead and Tortoise. Scott’s most recent album is titled Stretch Music which is also the title of the record label that he recently founded.

When asked to define what Stretch Music means, Scott said, “Fuck yeah it’s jazz. But it’s also indie rock. It’s also hip-hop” (Shahabian). The music of Christian Scott is a fusion of all sorts of different genres that the composer is inspired by. One of the primary genres used by Scott is Mardi Gras Indian music. This is because he grew up making his own Mardi Gras Indian costume and celebrating with the Black Indians every year. Though it is not obvious to the average listener, Scott’s music features rhythms inspired by his Afro-Native American heritage in many of his songs (Shahabian). Christian Scott’s work is the strongest example of contemporary music being created with strong influence from the Mardi Gras Indian tradition which causes music to continue evolving.

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Black Indian music has had a significant role in the evolution of all music in the United States. The Mardi Gras Indians continue to influence contemporary compositions of creative geniuses such as Christian Scott and Donald Harrison in present day. Because African slaves began to express freedom through music, combining aspects of African and Native American culture, American culture as well as cultures around the world have been effected and caused to evolve and expand past their current limits to create new sounds that will continue to inspire musicians everywhere and shape the sound of music to come.

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Mardi Gras Indian’s Effect on Music Evolution. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from
“Mardi Gras Indian’s Effect on Music Evolution.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019,
Mardi Gras Indian’s Effect on Music Evolution. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Jul. 2024].
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