Mardi Gras is one of the world’s most fun and fascinating parties, and the celebration wouldn’t be possible without music. This is an event so intimately connected with music that the mere mention of it conjures sounds of joyful brass bands and jubilant jazz music for most people. Today, we’re honoring one of the most loved and listened to music traditions in the world.
The origins of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras as we know it has its roots firmly placed in 17th Century Europe. “Boeuf Gras” in French means “Fat Ox,” and it refers to the tradition of eating fattened livestock before lent that was popular in France at the time. In 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville traveled to a spot south of New Orleans and called it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” since he and his crew arrived on the eve of the holiday. By the 1730’s, shortly after New Orleans’ founding, Mardi Gras was regularly celebrated in the city.
Iconic music that defines Mardi Gras
New Orleans is brimming with music at all times of the year, but especially during Mardi Gras. The sort of music you’re most likely to hear during Mardi Gras is played by krewes marching in parades. Most music is unamplified and played by brass instruments like tubas, trombones, and trumpets as well as percussion instruments like marching snare and bass drums. The tradition of brass bands loudly celebrating Mardi Gras harkens back to an era when the electronic amplification of instruments wasn’t possible. By necessity, musicians in New Orleans marked the joyous occasion with some of the loudest instruments they could find.
As jazz began to develop in the city in the early 20th century, exciting new sounds started weaving their way into Mardi Gras celebrations. Louis Armstrong is credited for helping to define the sound of Mardi Gras as we know and love it today. Contemporary acts that have made this iconic celebration even more special include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Roots, and Kool and The Gang.
Songs like “Hey Pocky A-Way” by The Meters, Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time,” and “Mardi Gras Mambo” by the Hocketts make up some of the most famous Mardi Gras tunes.
Learn to play
If you want to bring the sounds of Mardi Gras into your personal repertoire, start by immersing yourself in the music of New Orleans. Sheet music and songbooks will be a big help. Mardi Gras music is definitely accessible, but it’s not always easy to play so make sure you set aside plenty of time to practice. You’re most likely to hear brass and percussion instruments at this celebration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play it for yourself with another instrument like a guitar or piano. Enjoy, and Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!