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Mardi Gras Playlist

March 6, 2014

A couple of days have passed since the actual Mardi Gras celebration, the last big blowout before the penitential season of Lent, when Christians are supposed to prepare for the observance of Good Friday. But that won’t stop us from putting out our Mardi Gras/ Carnival playlist. There are far too many musical traditions associated with this holiday to sample all of them, but in this list you get two famous Carnival overtures, some great New Orleans songs and bands, and even a Trinidadian calypso tune.


1. Roman Carnival Overture (Berlioz); London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, conductor.
This overture is made up of themes from Berlioz’ ill-fated opera Benvenuto Cellini. The solo instrument in the first part is the English horn. After the beautiful melody, comes a fast section that builds to a climax with Berlioz’ trademark crossrhythms and brilliant orchestration.

2. “La Danse de Mardi Gras” by the Balfa Brothers.
From a 19th-century Frenchman we go to a 20th-century Cajun music ensemble, one of the first to bring Cajun music into the mainstream spotlight. This song is still sung by Cajun Mardi Gras celebrants, and is about an old tradition of begging gumbo ingredients. This version was used in two different movies, Passion Fish (1992) and, recently, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).

3. “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from the album This is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band Collection
New Orleans Mardi Gras is all about the parade, especially the second line. This explosive track, with the whistling intro and virtuoso tuba part, comes from a band that began a renaissance of New Orleans brass band music in the early 1980s.

4. “If Ever I Cease to Love” (George Leyland, 1870); David Roe, vocals and ukelele.
This funny English novelty tune has been the official anthem of the Rex Organization (a major player in the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade tradition) since 1872. It is sung here by the lead singer of the Royal Rounders, a band that mixes Hawaiian music and New Orleans standards, a novelty in itself.

5. “Jean and Dinah” by Mighty Sparrow, off the album Mighty Sparrow, Volume 1.
We move over to Trinidad for this Calypso carnival tune, a huge hit in 1956. In Trinidadian Carnival parades, the song most often played by bands at the judging points along the route is named the year’s “roadmarch.” This song was one the first of eight roadmarch titles taken by Mighty Sparrow.

6. “Iko, Iko” by James Crawford (1953); off the album Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972), Dr. John piano and vocals.
This classic number was originally titled “Jockamo,” before its famous recording by the Dixie Cups in the 1960s (which resulted in a lawsuit from Crawford). The song, including the title, is filled with imitations of chanting by Mardi Gras Indians. (Several social clubs march in the parade in Indian dress, perhaps to honor the local Indians who helped slaves escape bondage before the Civil War.) The lyrics tell of the collision between two of these groups.

7. “The Carnival of Venice” traditional, with variations for cornet, by Jean-Baptiste Arban; off the album, Classic Wynton, Wynton Marsalis, trumpet.
Okay, this tune has nothing to do with carnival, except for its title. Inexplicably, it became the basis for a number of classic trumpet variation sets, this one being the most often-played. One of New Orleans’ most famous musical sons blows through this workout with complete ease.

8. Carnival Overture (Dvorák); New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conductor.
A fantastic piece of classical entertainment, from a great composer who understood that the classical tradition is entertainment, although not only that.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.