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The New Mardi Gras

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Ask yourself, what defines Mardi Gras in the early 21st century? Is there really such a thing as a New Mardi Gras? Certainly! Probably. Okay, maybe. – published MardiGras (US).

What it is ain't exactly clear
There's something happening here, a new aesthetic, but it’s not an easy concept to define. The New Mardi Gras seems to have been born of post-Katrina recovery passion. It’s about DIY participation. Its stronghold is downtown, it’s about marching and dancing, it’s not so much about floats and throws. The participants have a sense of community, but not a sense of high society. The New Mardi Gras is only popular with hipster newcomers … and natives. It’s not exactly traditional, though it was inspired by age-old Mardi Gras Indians and Baby Doll customs, plus the free-form costuming and parading that recalls Mardi Gras’ earliest beginnings.

Feel free to disagree
Rest assured, time and again in this story, you’re going to think of exceptions that undermine some of these precepts. Handmade throws, for instance, may seem like an example of a New Mardi Gras custom. But, of course, Zulu riders have been decorating their coveted coconuts for almost a century. As always, feel free to disagree with anything, as you read on. But do read on.

The illustrative history of the illustrious Red Bean Parade
Artist Devin De Wulf was one of those marvelous young volunteer-types who moved to New Orleans to help with the recovery. His krewe members make costumes by mosaicking red beans, rice and other dried legumes and grains to garments with hot glue. If you’ve ever seen the parade, you’d agree, some of their work is downright brilliant.
The krewe of Red Beans is the perfect example of the do-it-yourself vibe that is one of the defining characteristics of The New Mardi Gras.

In the beginnings
Every New Mardi Gras krewe has a different origin story, but they’re all more-or-less in the mold of the Red Bean parade. Someone, often from somewhere else, falls in love with Crescent City Carnival culture and dives right into the pool.

You call that art?
“It just takes one clear concept,” said Ryan Ballard, the founder of the 3,000-member Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, the biggest of the New Mardi Gras organizations. “Just one strong, clever theme.”
And the clever themes are all over the map.
The ‘tit Rex parade, that first rolled in 2009, is about satirical miniaturization. The Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc parade, that also marched for the first time in 2009, is about celebrating the 15th-century martyr. The Chewbacchus parade, founded in 2011, is about science fiction and pop culture. The theme of Krewedelusion, that first took to the streets in 2010, is a little vague, but it’s increasingly political and perennially artistic.
Art is important in the New Mardi Gras. Amy Kirk Duvoisin, founder of the Joan of Arc parade, said she first saw the procession as performance art. The floats from the first mini ‘tit Rex parade were shown in an art gallery. Ballard said that he views Chewbacchus and some of the other krewes as ongoing conceptual artworks. And L.J. Goldstein, the founder of krewedelusion, described their 2017 parade as “poetic” – anyone who saw it would agree.
For the low, low price of 42 bucks
Likewise, Chewbacchus co-founder Ballard believes that the low buy-in of the newer marching krewes makes it possible for more and more people to participate. Chewbacchus’ dues are only $42. The cost to ride in older krewes can cost hundreds or thousands. Of course, Ballard pointed out, in Chewbacchus you have to produce your costume, mini-floats, and throws yourself.

Gently hand me something precious, mister
At their best, the handmade throws lovingly passed out by most of the New Mardi Gras parades are mini works of art. They also represent an ecological consciousness that has not yet penetrated the older parades.
Speaking for the membership of krewedelusion, Goldstein said that “they would be ashamed to buy beads from China… What I think it comes down to is a distinct change in values.”
De Wulf said that this year, Red Bean paraders will be passing out glass beans made by New Orleans artist Nancy Thacker.
I want one!

Captain of the bad old Krewe du Vieux
When discussing the low-cost, alternative Carnival model, Ballard credits the lovably-lewd Krewe du Vieux as inspiration. KDV, which was founded in 1986, may be too old to be considered part of the New Mardi Gras, but its do-it-yourself philosophy makes it a model for the younger organizations. Krewe Captain Joe Thompson said that the attraction of participation is what distinguishes some krewes like Chewbacchus from the old-line uptown parades.
Thompson said that he once marched in Chewbacchus and found that “it was so much more about individuals having a good time,” without much heed for what onlookers might think.
On the other hand, he said, that same year he watched the venerable Rex parade pass by. The riders, he said, “were having a pretty good time on the floats, though it seemed to be much more staid; not cutting loose. They were doing a presentation for the crowd.”

The uprising of all the new krewes
Dianne Honore is founder of the Amazons, a group of warrior women that marches with the Joan of Arc parade, and the Black Storyville Baby Dolls, a modern homage to the women who famously costumed in the African-American part of New Orleans red light district starting in 1912.
Honore said that she welcomes “the uprising of all the new krewes.” But she wishes there was a little more old-fashioned discipline among onlookers. These days, audiences sometimes plunge right into passing parades.
When Honore was queen of the Red Bean parade in 2013, she wore an enormous headdress. Somewhere along the route, the crowd flowed into the street and disconcertingly surrounded the marchers.
Honore said that traditionally, the organized marchers and bands at the start of a neighborhood parade are called “the first line" and the ramble of dancers and pedestrians that follow are “the second line.” But as she described the Red Bean parade incident, she said: “There was no second line; it was all the first line.”
Such is the downside of New Mardi Gras familiarity.

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