Actually, having not grown up Catholic or anywhere near the Big Easy, I didn't really know much about the holiday, but as I pulled out of Plantation (yes, this black man lives in a town with a very messed-up name) and headed for the beach, I was hoping to get educated, and quick. The first thing I noticed was that the senior citizens strolling Hollywood's boardwalk didn't really remind me of the televised images of the French Quarter. No matter how many beads showed up, I hoped no one would be pulling off bikini tops any time soon.
And most of the beet-red French-Canadian tourists hanging at the party looked like they couldn't have cared less for the New Orleans brass band on the main stage anyway. Maybe the combination of sunshine and sea was too much we were only 20 feet away from the Atlantic Ocean but the Québécois I encountered were too busy parlez-vousing français and adjusting their Speedos to pay attention. Some even looked insulted.
A bit farther down on the boardwalk, Pat Deleon's Cajun band from Lafayette, Louisiana, was having the completely opposite effect on a wily crowd of similar north-of-the-border onlookers who were dancing and boozing. I wondered what was causing such different reactions. Sure, Deleon's bunch was playing some serious music, and it inspired a woman somewhat past 60 to grab me for a dance. She was covered in body paint and wore a carnival mask and a feathery boa. And after we shimmied a bit, she explained in a mild French-Canadian accent why the two musical acts were getting such different receptions. She said that she was from New Brunswick and that Cajun music not jazz was the music of her ancestors.
"But you're Canadian, right?" I asked, somewhat confused. "Acadian," she corrected me. "We migrated from New Brunswick to Louisiana in the 17th Century, and now they call us Cajuns."
Dimly, it was coming back to me something I think I'd mostly slept through in a fifth-grade Detroit geography class. Meanwhile, as my Acadian friend was refreshing my memory, tubas, French horns, and saxophones belted out notes to songs I couldn't understand, and a man in his early 70s started breakdancing in the middle of the crowd. Seriously.
What the hell was going on? These were the liveliest, drunkest white folks I'd ever seen in my life, and the old timer with the mean top-rock move pulled out a kazoo and started playing along with the band.
I had to stop and regroup. I got some help from Terrence Higgins, longtime drummer for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who hipped me to some additional cultural facts. Cajun music, he said, comes from a bunch of Acadians who were expelled from Canada centuries ago. They set up shop in Lafayette, where French is still spoken and Cajun culture thrives. On the other hand, the music and drumming patterns are vastly different in New Orleans, where second-line brass music rules the scene.
"Second-line brought about vaudeville, jazz, and bebop it's a real indigenous African-American art form," Higgins said. "All that Dixieland music from Louisiana, those were white folks. And they wasn't playing no second-line either! This is the music we play at funerals and in the streets, and there ain't no real white brass bands." Part of his defensiveness had the wrath of Katrina draped all over it. "This is our music, and the black folks that lost everything in the storm, most of them aren't back yet. So how can you have Mardi Gras music and the only folks that know how to play it aren't back in the city yet?"
Now we were getting somewhere. Fellow band member and trombone player Revert "Peanut" Andrews chimed in as well. "See, we Creole in New Orleans we don't fool with all this Cajun stuff cause we got our own culture," he said. Peanut is a third-generation brass musician from the Sixth Ward of New Orleans, right where second-line music originated, but the festivities seemed to sadden him. I asked him when the last time was that he'd been home for Mardi Gras, and the ensuing pause spoke volumes.
"Man I can't even remember my last Mardi Gras in New Orleans," he said. "We always on the road this time of year." He lost everything he owned in Hurricane Katrina. I soaked up all the explanations and melancholia but also noticed how excited the French Canadians were when J.J. Callier and the Zydeco Knockouts took over the stage as darkness set in. These guys were from Lafayette as well, but they played zydeco, and the crowd loved it. I hung around for a while, danced a bit, and headed to see the Dirty Dozen. But when they eventually took the stage at nightfall, most people were still lingering around the Zydeco players. As it turned out, Hollywood is a perfect place to host a Mardi Gras festival; the snowbirds have a stronger cultural connection to it than I do. The differences between New Orleans and Lafayette might escape the locals, but the visiting Acadians sure get it.
As for me, I left early and fortunately didn't get flashed by a retiree.