A Cajun Mardi Gras

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Louisiana is known for New Orleans, and New Orleans is known, of course, for its Mardi Gras. The sumptuous parade floats, the infamous bead throwing, the bacchanalian wildness on Bourbon Street…all of these things we can easily conjure up in our minds. But what about out in Cajun country? How do they celebrate Mardi Gras in the Louisiana prairie, hours away from The Big Easy? On this Fat Tuesday, we discovered a whole different kind of Mardi Gras celebration. One full of Cajun music, chicken chasing, pig tackling, waltzing, and beautiful respect for the traditions and customs of the prairie.

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But before we found ourselves immersed in fiddles, accordions, and gumbo, our incredible hosts Jeff and Cecette Bassett warmed us up the night before with crawfish fettucini and a Mardi Gras parade in Lafayette. Jeff taught us the secret to catching beads but we learned the hard way that when it comes to those strings of plastic beads, it’s every man for himself. But we had an excuse; we had driven through the night from WV.

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The atmosphere Tuesday morning was dramatically different. Instead of paved streets, toy vendors, RV’s, cop cars, and high school marching bands, we found ourselves surrounded by crawfish farms, rice fields, backcountry houses, and 300 people ready to sing and dance and party at 8am in the middle of nowhere.  At this Mardi Gras, there would be no bead throwing, there would be no floats, and there would be no parade queens.  In fact, there weren’t even any spectators, except for a handful of locals in lawn chairs.  The celebration was in participating, not in spectating.  And so for that, the one major rule was you had to show up in costume, otherwise you would face whipping and public condemnation. The key element in these outfits was fringe. The more fringe the better.  We never figured out what fashion precedent these costumes were based off of but it sort of looks like a KKK pajama party.  Masks are encouraged, and some sort of hat seemed requisite.  Amazingly, we had all that covered. Jeff and Cecette miraculously appropriated some authentic Cajun party suits for us, even bought us masks, and we were in like Flynn.

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From the moment we arrived, we knew we were in for something special.  Jeff and Cecette drove us to the house where everyone was gathering and it felt a bit like going to school on the first day with mom and dad.  We didn’t know anyone; we felt a little embarrassed about our clothes.  And we didn’t know quite what to expect.  But within minutes we had made friends with Holly and Grease who made us swig cinnamon whiskey and holler “Hot Damn!”  If whiskey is good for one thing, it’s breaking the ice.  So there we were, two Virginia boys in pointed caps, cameras on our shoulders,  sour mash on our breath, and not a clue what the morning and afternoon lay in store.  But it was immediately apparent that a day full of beautiful pictures was ahead of us.

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What ensued was likely one of the most wonderful days AFP has experienced yet, and ranks up there with one of the best days of our lives.  Very simply we just walked through the Cajun countryside like some sort of tribe, a band of gypsies, a family of bejeweled strangers, dancing and singing to songs from the Cajun canon.  Ok, maybe “simply” isn’t the right word.  At every third house or so we passed, the entire caravan stopped and would beg for a live chicken.  A resident from the house would then hold up the animal, inciting the mob into a frenzy, and then launch the bird into the air setting off a furious dash to catch it.  If the chase wasn’t long enough there might be a 2nd or 3rd chicken throwing.  We must have done this seven times and after each one the band on the wagon would start again and dancing would recommence.  Slowly, we made our way across grass fields, dirt roads, through cemeteries, and eventually back to the house where it all began for a community gumbo and dance. Perhaps it was the cinnamon whiskey that started the day.  Perhaps it was first days of warm weather we had experienced in months.  Perhaps it was that infectious cajun fiddling.  But there was a warmth to this day that will be hard to forget.

If you’re one to usually skim the photos, please take your time with this slide show.  It’s fascinating.  So much so that we purposefully left our written descriptions to a minimum.  Colorful, strange, mind blowing–all words that we use to try to describe the day.


cajun mardi gras from Ross McDermott on Vimeo.

We owe a huge thank you to Cecette and Jeff for opening their house to a couple of strangers and taking us in like we were their own children!  The king cakes and crawfish boil on our last night completed our authentic Louisiana adventure.

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Cecette with her puppies Bijou and Zoe behind their beautiful house.

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Posted by andrew, posted on 03/03/2009 at 6:52pm. Bookmark this post.

19 Comments

  1. Posted 03/03/2009 at 7:08pm
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    nitsyrk:

    WOW! These truly ARE amazing!!!!!! Definitely some of my favorite photos so far.

  2. Posted 03/03/2009 at 7:09pm
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    nitsyrk:

    Oh yeah… So did you guys get to keep those costumes?

  3. Posted 03/03/2009 at 7:28pm
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    Ross:

    Thanks Nitsyrk! Yeah, we are super proud of these new images. We did not get to keep the costumes, as they were lent to us by locals in the area, but we did get to keep the masks. We are already planning our costumes for next year and brushing up on our sewing skills!

  4. Posted 03/03/2009 at 8:08pm
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    Mark P:

    Fantastic!! If I’m in the US this time next year I wanna go. Good video, great shots! And the story with it was great too.

    Shared it on my Google Reader and I’ll prolly get around to throwing some pics and a link on my blog sometime.

    Great job guys.

  5. Posted 03/04/2009 at 9:56am
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    Will K:

    Nice work lads. You really capture the spirit of the day through you images and video. It’s heartfelt coverage — folksy, very authentic and intimate.
    Keep it up!

  6. Posted 03/04/2009 at 1:27pm
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    Jenna:

    KKK pajama party?! haha.
    oh wow, this is unbelievable. I wonder what it would have been like if you hadn’t shown up in costume?

  7. Posted 03/04/2009 at 3:54pm
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    Craig Volpe:

    I’ve been dying to see what you guys got and I loved them! So fun and educational seeing the same event through another photographer’s eyes. Great meeting you and great job!

  8. Posted 03/04/2009 at 3:55pm
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    Cat:

    The photo of the little girl in the road is AMAZING.

    You two look like giant pinatas!

    I was born in New Orleans, and though I was too young to do Mardi Gras at the time, I’ve been told that NOLA mardi gras parades are much more family-oriented than people assume. This must have been even more special, as an event that is truly invested “in participating, not in spectating” seems to be the most supremely genuine experience. I wish I could have been there!

  9. Posted 03/04/2009 at 4:07pm
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    Sean McDermott:

    Wow. Good job Andrew and Rosso. I love the picture of the couple laying in the grass with the chicken. At first you don’t think there is anything special about the picture–but after you notice the costumes and the chicken…ha! I was wondering what role the Zorro guy had? It looks in one picture that someone is trying to attack him? And how was the meal at night with all the animals? Thanks again and keep them coming, looking forward to see what the West holds for you both,

  10. Posted 03/05/2009 at 11:32am
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    Dawn Miller:

    “KKK pajama party?” Oddly derisive and so very far from reality. Your selection of those words is quite telling of YOU. Sad really. These are wonderfully, joyful, and hospitable people.

  11. Posted 03/05/2009 at 1:25pm
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    Mark P:

    Dawn M, you didn’t actually read the story, did you? They clearly loved the festival and the people.

  12. Posted 03/05/2009 at 4:44pm
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    Stephanie:

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Stunning. I feel like I was there!

    I love the Anton Corbijn-esque-Joy-Division-march shot.

    The compositions are terrific here (pointing in the sky, various random exposures etc…) and the colors are so rich. Great timing with people’s facial expressions and nuances. These are my favorites so far!

  13. Posted 03/05/2009 at 7:49pm
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    Erin T:

    The photo of the young girl in light pink is my favorite. Everything about is perfect. way to go. Glad to see your on the road again.

  14. Posted 03/06/2009 at 12:08am
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    Dan Milo:

    Fantastic work fellows – a wonderful portrait of America’s idiosyncrasies. I check it every day!

  15. Posted 03/06/2009 at 2:16am
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    Ross:

    Dawn,
    Mark is right. The event was one of the best days of our lives, and clearly we were greatly impressed by the festivities and all the wonderful people we met. We were trying to add a little humors in our attempt to describe the costumes to our readers. It was not to be derisive.

  16. Posted 03/06/2009 at 2:22am
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    Ross:

    Sean,
    The Zorro guy was a ‘Co-Capitane’, which entitles him to keeping order throughout the day. There is a playful dialogue between the co-capitanes and the participants. Mr. Zorro liked to chase people around and whip them. Taunting the co-capitanes seemed like the thing to do. Participants tried to get a rise out of them. Some of the things that happened that day had no order or explanation. It’s controlled buffoonery.

    We did not actually eat a meal at the end of the day with the animals that we collected. It would have taken too long. When the parade was over, we returned to the house and chicken and pork gumbo was waiting for us!

  17. Posted 03/06/2009 at 2:24am
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    Ross:

    Thank you everyone for your comments. We really appreciate the feedback and support! We’re dishing it out as fast as we can, so ya’ll just hold your bucking broncos!

  18. Posted 07/03/2009 at 3:45am
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    Jeremy:

    As someone who has celebrate the Cajun Mardi Gras since I was 16 years old (and yes, we drank back then too), I am relieved to see that you guys took the time to capture the real essense of Mardi Gras. The traditions are rich in history and you captured it perfectly. I have a niece that celebrated her first Mardi Gras in Eunice this year. Even she was dress in costume. She had a blast meeting the Mardi Gras’ and seeing the chickens they cought up close and personal. She was 1 1/2 years old! Traditions in South Louisiana are hard to break, and I know her children will be celebrating with ol’ Uncle Jeremy one day, alongside my kids as well! Thanks for the wonderful article.

  19. Posted 02/19/2011 at 8:16pm
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    Celjun:

    Great Pics! I was a Co-Capitan on this Courir and thats my little girl at the top of the page. We often see alot of people with camera’s on our run and never get a chance to see the footage they take. The pictures you got are truly fantastic and really captured the essence of the Courir, great job and we hope to see ya’ll on this years run.
    Thanks guys!

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