Today being Mardi Gras, I figured I'd write a post on the well-nigh ubiquitous song Iko Iko, originally recorded as Jock-A-Mo by James Crawford, as "Sugar Boy" and his band The Cane Cutters. The song tells of an encounter between two groups of Indians, predominantly African-American krewes who developed a parallel Mardi Gras parade in response to the legacy of racism that pervaded the more established parade (one of the more prominent krewes, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club first paraded on major streets in 1968). The Mardi Gras Indians honor the traditions of the Native Americans who harbored runaway slaves, and the shared African and Native American ancestry of the members. The Mardi Gras Indians parade in elaborate costumes that are extraordinarily weighty. The Big Chief of an Indian krewe determines the route of the parade, which necessitates reconnaisance, which is accomplished by a Spy Boy, who gives warning of any sign of trouble, or the approach of another krewe- this is crucial, because a Big Chief often needs time to adjust his costume for the upcoming displays between two krewes. Another important figure in the krewe is the Flag Boy, who carries the guidon of the krewe and coordinates signals between the Spy Boy and the Big Chief.
Because of the "masking" tradition, and the general confusion that characterizes Mardi Gras, scores were often settled at this time, though violence has been eschewed in favor of displays of virtuosity and taunting, the Humba, which has a long history in the Francophone world. As noted Big Chief Tootie Montana, quoted in the Wikipedia article, put it, "I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread." It is this tradition that the song Jock-a-Mo or Iko Iko celebrates, the meeting of two krewes and the subsequent one-upsmanship. And the chorus? Even the song's composer doesn't know for sure, though there are all sorts of theories that give it an origin in Choctaw/Chickasaw trade language, or the languages of the West African Akan and Ewe peoples, or a Yoruba/Creole dialect used in Vodun rituals. At any rate, the language definitely serves as a cryptolect. Funny that a song which has become ubiquitous can be so recondite.
Anyway, enough of my yapping, how about some music? Here's the original Jock-a-Mo by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford and his Cane Cutters:
Here's the famed version by the Dixie Cups, an extemporaneous version of a song they'd heard their grandmother singing, fortuitously recorded by hit makers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Here's Uncle Jerry's version:
Here's a version by Davell Crawford, grandson of "Sugar Boy", and famed New Orleans musician Dr John:
Finally, here's the now-inescapable version by the Belle Stars. I'm tickled pink by the idea that the lead singer, a nice English girl, is celebrating her African roots by singing a Creole song from New Orleans:
Alright, here's wishing tout le monde a happy Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler! I made a big pot of red beans and rice yesterday, but I'm going to be headed down to Brooklyn for the monthly lecture rather than whoopin' it up Nawlins style.
Here's a short documentary, albeit one from an outsider's perspective, about the Mardi Gras Indians: