At dusk, flooded rice fields extend out beneath giant prairie skies like black mirrors on either side of Highway 97, broken only by white plastic floats marking submerged crawfish traps. With over 200 miles of elbow room east to New Orleans or west to Houston, this is the heart of rural Acadiana: Cajun country.
Out of the dark leaps a lighted sign. The parking lot of DI's restaurant by the roadside is jammed with cars; a steady stream of people -- neighbors even though their houses are separated from one another by those glistening rice fields -- moves through the door. A smaller number assemble on one side of the parking lot, by a long wooden wagon hitched to a pickup truck. The wagon is lined with benches and hand-painted in brilliant red, yellow and green: TEE-MAMOU MARDI-GRAS. Clustering around the wagon, they talk among themselves in quiet, purposeful tones. Most are garbed in pajamalike costumes stitched from vivid scraps of fabric and heavily fringed along the seams and hems; on their heads are capuchons -- tall, pointed caps such as those worn by ladies of a European court centuries ago. In their hands, not yet on their faces, are masks crafted of pieces of window screen, with designs meticulously painted on, so that the face of the wearer flickers behind the terrifying or comical grimaces.
For a week we've been bunking in cabins at two nearby state parks, Sam Houston Jones and Chicot, where our windows look out on Spanish moss and cypress marshes, graceful snow-white herons and red-headed muscovy ducks. The deep silence promotes the kind of sleep critical to paying good attention: We need to be fully alert to grasp even a fraction of the deep and ancient and farcical and serious events we're witnessing, events that will culminate at midnight on Fat Tuesday. Hours away, New Orleans is readying its bacchanalian carnival. But in the Louisiana prairie -- in towns like Basile, population 1,700, or the adjacent cluster of farming neighborhoods known as Tee-Mamou -- Mardi Gras signifies a different tradition entirely: a community festival in which spectacularly masked citizens go from house to house in the countryside singing, dancing, drinking and unleashing temporary, playful mayhem.
While the ostensible purpose of the courir, or run, is to arrive disguised on the doorsteps of neighbors and cajole offerings -- sausage, rice, money, a live chicken -- for a communal gumbo served up at day's end, what compels these modern Cajuns to this annual reenactment is an almost inarticulable but electrifying connection not only to their own families' difficult circumstances earlier in this century, but to the celebration's direct descent from the pre-Lenten carnivals of medieval France.
Outside DI's one of the uncostumed men -- in Mardi Gras terminology, a capitaine who will play his own part in the pageant -- climbs into a wagon and calls for order. "OK. Now listen. We're going to have a good time. Any money you collect, you give to the capitaines. We're going to sing the song. We're going to dance. Then we cut up." The capitaine is the linchpin in the balance between order and chaos: He keeps people to script -- how they sing the Mardi Gras chant while linked arm in arm, how they collect the alms and food. Then one of the women calls out: "Allons, Mardi Gras!"
To Cajuns, "Mardi Gras" takes on new and rich meaning. Mardi Gras may be the name of the celebration on the day before the long Lenten fast begins. But it is also the name for the whole band of maskers, and it is the label for the individual participant as well. "Look at that Mardi Gras!" someone may exclaim of a masker clambering over a roof. Individual, community, festival merge into a single phrase.
Inside DI's, the Cajun band, which has been playing to a crowded dance floor, suddenly falls silent. Then just the fiddle picks up again, a repeated driving figure. Enter the masked Mardi Gras: in tight line two abreast, arms linked, stomping and swaying. The individuals from outside are completely unrecognizable, transformed in bearing as well as by mask. As the band picks up the beat they form a circle with the capitaine, who now bears a whip of braided rope, in the middle like a ringmaster. At the conclusion of this spiral dance, the crowd tosses coins onto the floor and the maskers scurry about collecting them. Then, unaccompanied, they start to sing in Cajun French: a pulsing, minor-key tune that could come out of a Renaissance town but is known throughout the Cajun world simply as the Mardi Gras Song.
"Greetings to the master and mistress," goes the last verse of Tee-Mamou's particular version. "We ask you for a little something." They approach people in the hall, palms open in supplication, begging in disguised voices for change: "Cinq sous? Cinq sous? Five cents?" Then the band picks up a lively two-step and the maskers grab stray civilians for a dance -- touching their pockets to lure more change out in the process, or abruptly hectoring them to acts of generosity. And there is still one more act to this pageant: When the dance number ends, the capitaines must eject the Mardi Gras from the hall. "Then we cut up," the capitaine had declared: This is what he meant. As the Mardi Gras cling to pillars or clamber onto tabletops, the capitaines whack them down with the rope whips, or haul them out bodily as Mardi Gras twist and scurry, until finally the whole entourage exits to applause.
On Mardi Gras day, the scene becomes even more wild. In Basile, master mask-maker Potic Rider assembles dozens of Mardi Gras at 7 a.m.; by the time they leave at 7:30, they are already shouting and stomping and rocking the open wagons that will carry them house-to-house in town. Careening off the wagons at each stop, the Mardi Gras dance to the door led by a lone accordion player, whooping and hollering. They scramble up trees, or commandeer a wheelbarrow; spectators are likely to be approached by a begging Mardi Gras only to find their shoes slyly tied together, or to be hoisted suddenly aloft before a capitaine whacks the masked miscreant with a whip. Then, suddenly, Rider will appear on a doorstep to announce he has permission from the host for the visit. Suddenly, the cavorting Mardi Gras go silent and fall to their knees in supplication. In a thrilling baritone, Rider sings out the first line of the Mardi Gras song over the crowd; it becomes a call-and-response chorus, ending with exuberant shaking of fists aloft.
Periodically, the national media parachute into Prairie Acadia,
and the result is almost always a description of chaos and wild drunken
rampages around the countryside. Time magazine did it a few years ago; the
New York Times did it in January. At this year's Tee-Mamou run a squadron
of news photographers from Chicago showed up in Scud Stud bush vests
bearing enough gear and film to shoot Gulf War II. The Mardi Gras
themselves feel bitterly caricatured. This year's Tee-Mamou Mardi Gras
decided on a simple policy: no interviews. "We don't mind publicity,"
explains one of the capitaines. "But sometimes people write about what
they come expecting, instead of about our traditions, our culture. Which
is what this is."
Truth be told, reporters are not the only outsiders who carry
their preconceptions to Cajun Mardi Gras. Scholars, too, have sometimes
parachuted in, squeezing the festival into their neat schemes of timeless
cultural archetypes: a symbolic battle between
winter and spring, or an equally symbolic class war. Such clinical
anthropologic dissections were often undertaken, writes Carl Lindahl, a
University of Houston folklorist who has spent the past 16 years talking
with Basile's Mardi Gras, "as if simply by watching people we could
determine their thoughts and feelings better than they themselves could
express them." One result is that while Mardi Gras don't mind respectful
visitors tagging along, the capitaine at Tee-Mamou's women's run took
pains to emphasize that the performance is for the neighbors whose houses
the Mardi Gras visits. Rider says that same thing about Basile: "We
didn't do this just to have a good time, we didn't do this for us,"
historian Lindahl recorded Rider pronouncing over the gumbo two years ago.
"We did it to feed the people of Basile." Though people no
longer have to worry about tiny subsistence farms yielding enough food to
get them through till spring, the memory of hunger on the prairie is as
near as the grandparent who watches this year's spectacle from the front
porch. This remains a community celebration, not a tourist event.
If the national love affair with things Cajun hasn't yet grown to
include this intense, exhausting Mardi Gras, perhaps it's because the
Mardi Gras itself so clearly reflects the difficult history and
conditions that produced modern Cajun life. That history is on display
a few miles up the road from Basile in the larger town of Eunice, where
the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center features a time line fed by many
economic and ethnic tributaries. Cajun history begins with a great trauma:
the expulsion by the British of thousands of Catholic French
settlers in Nova Scotia in 1755 and 1758, just before and during the French and Indian
War. "Le Grand Dérangement," Acadians call it. First transported to
hostile British colonies on the Eastern seaboard, they finally resettled
in the western reaches of French Louisiana, alongside several waves of
enslaved Africans and freed slaves from the Caribbean, Coushatta Indians
and, later, Germans and other immigrants.
The Cajuns arrived in the
mid-20th century with their language intact, and their old French tunes
blended with country, blues and Texas swing; but they were living, for the
most part, in an economy of impoverished subsistence agriculture alongside
hard manual labor. And for generations they endured both economic
exploitation and legal discrimination. The exploitation came from oil
companies, which snookered illiterate farmers into signing away the oil
rights beneath their land. Even today, the back-country oil wells that
dot the Louisiana landscape return little to the local economy. The
discrimination came in Louisiana's school system, which in the 1920s
outlawed the teaching or speaking of French in public schools. Gilbert
LeBlanc, a Basile capitaine born in 1921 whose clanging triangle still
sets the beat for
house-to-house dancing, recalls arriving at school speaking only French,
and how for all his years in school students would be punished for
speaking their language on school grounds. At Longfellow Evangeline State
Commemorative Area in St. Martinville -- a painstakingly reconstructed 19th century plantation that provides a vivid introduction to the area's
agricultural economy, along with displays of carefully assembled artifacts
such as pre-Civil War slave manifests -- curator Suzanne La Violette
remembers that when she attended the local high school in the 1970s,
French was not even offered as an academic subject. It's this historical
combination of cultural suppression and economic privation that makes
Mardi Gras, its combination of communal charity and wild cultural
affirmation, so intensely moving, even at its wildest.
The public face of the Cajun revival is thrillingly evident in
Eunice, the region's economic nerve center, with a population of 11,000. Eunice
boasts not only the Acadian Culture Center but the Liberty Theater, a
restored movie palace that every Saturday night hosts "Rendez-vous des
Cajuns," a live-broadcast, live-audience program of music and humor hosted
by University of Southwestern Louisiana Professor Barry Ancelet, a key
figure in the culture revival. It's sometimes called a Cajun "Prairie Home
Companion," but imagine "PHC" performed by and for an audience that shares
a history and a region.
The town is an epicenter of traditional Cajun cooking;
there's not a bad restaurant in town, and an unassuming storefront
labeled "Mama's Fried Chicken" keeps winning the region's contests with a
rich and subtle crawfish étouffé, which belies the stereotypical notion of fire-engine Cajun spicing. Eunice is also home to the music shop run by
master accordion builder and Cajun music shaman Marc Savoy. While Cajun
music has been absorbed into the river of American pop, Savoy and his wife,
Ann, have devoted their lives to documenting and protecting the original
wellspring -- a musical tradition that may be more imperiled by the pop
music world's embrace than it was by neglect. Their shop is a gathering
place for the area's traditional musicians and a magnet for visiting
players; at a word-of-mouth session on Mardi Gras eve, Eunice Mayor Kenneth Peart -- who a few days earlier had appeared on the "Rendez-vous des Cajuns" stage in
full Mardi Gras costume -- could be found keeping time on a triangle amid
the fiddlers and guitarists and accordion players.
But if Eunice represents the public promotion of all things
Prairie Cajun, the smaller towns' Mardi Gras are the revival at its most
personal -- even, paradoxically, for such a public event, its most
private. For instance, it's not just for convenience that the Tee-Mamou
Mardi Gras met and performed at DI's. While the food is unmoderated Cajun
home-style and staggeringly inexpensive -- a massive tray of spiced, boiled
crawfish for under $9 -- DI's is as much dance hall and community center
as restaurant, and its owners, Daniel and Sherry Frugé, are intimately
tied into the local Mardi Gras tradition. For years the Tee-Mamou run's
capitaine and guiding spirit was Daniel's brother, Gerald Frugé -- until
his death days before this year's Mardi Gras began. The Mardi Gras
begins its run at the farm of yet a third brother, Roonie Frugé, the
town's deputy sheriff, and returns there for gumbo at day's end. One of
the younger-generation Frugés, Renee, is among the area's mask-makers.
(The magnificent Mardi
Gras designs of Renee Frugé, Potic Rider and other masters of the craft
are the subject of a splendidly illustrated new University Press of
Mississippi book by Carl Lindahl and fellow Louisiana folklorist Carolyn
Ware, "Cajun Mardi Gras Masks.")
For all the Cajun Mardi Gras tradition's vigor, it's nearly
vanished twice. In the years after World War II, and again in the late 1960s, Mardi Gras in the area
were down to a handful. At that point, says
Carolyn Ware of the University of Mississippi, a
folklorist who has worked with the Tee-Mamou Mardi Gras for more than a
decade, "it was the women who stepped in," seeking to revive the
tradition. Besides Tee-Mamou's women's run, women now run with the men in
Basile and even serve there as capitaines, cracking their whips with
gusto. Tramping across muddy lawns following the Mardi Gras, hearing them
sing the Mardi Gras song at a dozen homes, watching them race after
chickens or struggle with the capitaine until the final inevitable
easy to forget how fragile this tradition is, just how easily it might
dry up and vanish from the earth.
That it hasn't is a tribute to the almost ineffable motivation
that every year leads Cajun Mardi Gras for one day to transform
appearance, voice, demeanor. A few years ago, mask-maker Rider tried
to explain to Carl Lindhal precisely why he has run every Basile Mardi
Gras for four decades: "Mardi Gras doesn't come from the head; it comes from the heart. It's in you. You can take anyone off the street and make
him a clown, but you can't make him a good clown. You can't make him a
Mardi Gras. Where it comes from ... it's very deep. It's like Moses going
to the mountaintop and seeing the burning bush. And the burning bush said,
'I am that I am.' Well, 'I am that I am': Potic. I run Mardi Gras."