By Liz Tracy
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Big Chief Pony Dancer is bellowing into his microphone like a man possessed. He's quite a sight on this Saturday night: a burly, curly-haired prankster decked out in a rainbow coalition of beads. To make room for a pair of headphones, he's removed the oversize and remarkably ornate party hat he was wearing. As soon as the live segment of his broadcast is over and the funky music is once again blaring across the airwaves, he will reach for the outlandish hat and set it back on his head like a crown.
At the moment, however, he's preaching his own version of the Gospel of Mardi Gras: "I feel it! It's Mardi Gras Time! It's the big buildup to Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day!"
Next to this expansive personality sits the bespectacled Steve Apple, dressed in a comparatively tame Rebirth Brass Band T-shirt and a single strand of colorful beads. Apple has refused to wear a silly hat for this broadcast, arguing that the radio audience can't see him anyway. Yet his eyes go wild as he shakes a rattle and babbles in his own peculiar hipster jive. He's on a roll.
"We've got a lotta music here for you tonight, folks," Apple says. "We've got zydeco, we've got brass bands, we've got Mardi Gras Indians, we've got it all. Turn the radio up real, real loud! Have a party!"
"Crank it up," Pony Dancer cajoles. "It's a special show, we've got a little taste of Louisiana comin' atcha. It's Mardi Gras season!"
At 11 p.m. every Saturday night, the Crescent City Music Show feeds the culture-starved airwaves of South Florida a spicy musical gumbo, N'awlins-style. For one hour, WAXY-AM (790) forgoes its standard easy-listening fare for healthy helpings of zydeco, R&B, brass bands, Dixieland jazz, bluesy swamp boogie, and classic soul. Tonight's listeners are being treated to some of the most blistering grooves America has ever produced: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," The Wild Magnolias' "Shoo Fly," and Benny Grunch & The Bunch's "Ain't No Place to Pee (On Mardi Gras Day)."
With more than 4000 CDs in their personal collections, Pony Dancer and Apple possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Southern regional music. From the WAXY studio in northern Miami-Dade, the pair's show beams across Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties. "We're the unofficial ambassadors of Louisiana music in South Florida," boasts Pony Dancer, a.k.a. Joe Perez.
And unlikely ambassadors they are. Perez is a Cuban-American photographer; Apple is a mild-mannered video production whiz. Yet once a week, their Bacchanalian side comes out with a vengeance. "It's the music, man," they explain in unison.
Apple took his first trip to New Orleans in 1989, when a friend convinced him to check out the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "As I walked into the fairgrounds, I could hear the Mardi Gras Indians," he recalls, as if the group's highly percussive tribal music were audible even now. "It was mass, organized chaos. Once I got there, it hooked me. Now I've been there for the last nine jazz fests in a row."
Perez first came across New Orleans during a cross-country drive. A one-night stop in the Big Easy turned into two nights and then three as he fell under the city's spell. He quickly became a regular at Pat O'Brien's, a well-known bar in the infamous Bourbon Street area.
"That time we pretty much did the French Quarter scene, as novices always do," Perez remembers. "We heard great music. We had great food. We had po-boys. We had a pile of shrimp" -- he raises his hand to his forehead -- "that was about this high, man. It was huge. Anyways, we got lost there for three days, until they finally kicked us out of Pat O'Brien's." Though Perez has been back to New Orleans well over a dozen times, he still tends to rhapsodize about the city. "There was obviously some sort of magic in the air," he says.
Coming from South Florida, where dance clubs dominate the music scene, Apple and Perez find themselves awed by the number of live music venues in New Orleans.
"There's 9000 disco clubs in South Florida and a handful of live music venues," Perez complains. "In New Orleans, though, there's 9000 live music venues, and two discos. There's obviously something wrong here. What's wrong with the music scene down here? As a music lover, I want the realness."
Eventually Perez and Apple discovered other like-minded individuals residing in South Florida. "We kept seeing the same faces year after year at great shows," Perez explains. "If Dr. John was playing in town, you know I was gonna be there, and Steve was gonna be there, and concert after concert we kept running into the same people. We were just bound to become friends."
"That's how we formed the Pet de Kat Krewe," Apple says proudly.
The Pet de Kat Krewe began as a loose affiliation of music lovers who kept each other abreast of upcoming shows and events. Like Deadheads the Krewe consists of amateur musicians, computer technicians, lawyers, and people from all walks of life who find a common bond in music. In honor of the official krewes (a mock-medieval spelling of "crews") that march in the Mardi Gras parades along New Orleans' French Quarter, the Pet de Kat Krewe moniker was chosen. In 1993 a few members printed up T-shirts as a way to find each other in the huge crowds at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Mardi Gras.
"The first year there were thirteen shirts," Apple says. "The next year, we made two dozen shirts. Last year we made 240 shirts, and this year we're making more."
Perez took it upon himself to craft a giant "spirit stick," a tall pole that marks the Krewe's location at massive events. The spirit stick, crowned by a toy pony similar to those found on carousels, also provided the inspiration for Perez's nickname, Big Chief Pony Dancer.
As the Pet de Kat Krewe's membership grew beyond the confines of South Florida and spread throughout the States, the group realized it needed a more visible spirit stick, one that could be seen from California to Canada. The answer was www.petdekat.com, a virtual meeting place where members can pass on information, post reviews, and link to related sites. The site has received some 19,000 hits. Enthusiasts as far away as Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and Canada's Baffin Island have subsequently joined the Pet de Kat Krewe.
While no one will say exactly where the first part of the Krewe's name came from, a couple of guesses have been bandied about: Either it has something to do with Apple's frenzied dancing style or a legendary cat known for swaying on its hind legs to zydeco music. Then again the name might have been dreamt up in 1982 by three college students from UCLA, or by a group of Chicago hippies in 1969, or by the townsfolk of Dekkatrois, Louisiana, in 1879. It depends on who's doing the explaining.
The Krewe's collective sense of whimsy has earned it a few notable admirers in New Orleans: Pet de Kat T-shirts have been spotted on the up-and-coming zydeco accordionist Terrence Simien as well as members of The Radiators and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Here in South Florida, the Krewe's ceaseless lobbying for New Orleans-themed events seems to have paid off. This weekend, February 20-22, Fiesta Tropicale brings Mardi Gras to Young Circle Park in Hollywood. Along with crawfish, shrimp, jambalaya, and other Louisiana-style munchies, Fiesta Tropicale will feature music by NRBQ (New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) and the zydeco legend C.J. Chenier.
This year marks the return of Fiesta Tropicale after a 32-year absence; it began in 1935 and ran out of steam in 1966. The festival's organizer, David Errickson, has faith that the Pet de Kat Krewe will set the standard for the "second-line" revelers on parade day.
"In New Orleans the people that follow along behind the parade and kind of have their own parade are called the second line," Errickson explains. "Well, I'm pretty sure the Pet de Kat Krewe will be the second line. They say they're coming, they show up, and they party."
"They're great supporters of what we do," says Debbie Boland, city festival coordinator for the City of Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation Department. "The Pet de Kat Krewe always brings a big crowd, and they're always very supportive of Cajun culture in our area."
"What we're doing has really grown; we're expanding and mushrooming," Perez says. "We support the new stuff and the classic stuff. If you get a pair of spoons and a stick and make it sound good, send it on down, we'll play it. It doesn't have to be highly polished. We want everybody to tune in, and we guarantee that if you put that radio on and you don't shake your ass or tap your foot, well, you're dead."
The Crescent City cohosts admit that they'd like to see their show get picked up for national syndication and acknowledge that snagging a prime slot on National Public Radio would be a dream come true. But they've already exceeded the expectations they had when they began broadcasting a year ago, often paying for the airtime out of their own pockets. This month Perez and Apple will travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and broadcast their show via satellite to South Florida.
"We started the show to pass on our love of real roots music," Perez says. "There's a hell of a lot of sounds to be found, and the roots musics from Louisiana are incomparable to any other. They put them all together into a pot, and they come up with a sound that you can't hear anywhere else, and that sound is guaranteed to provide a good time. And whatever you pull out of the pot, it's always red hot!"