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Cajun-Style Mardi Gras in Mamou

January 05, 1986|JOY SCHALEBEN LEWIS | Lewis is a Milwaukee free-lance writer.

MAMOU, La. — The Cajun farmer grinned as he stood on his roof clutching a flapping chicken's feet. Masked Mardi Gras riders in flowing capes and conical hats charged into his yard.

"Throw it, throw it!" they yelled, as a wagonful of musicians struck up a lusty Cajun tune.

Some riders stood precariously on their horses, swaying to the foot-stomping music. Others leaped off and scrambled alongside the frame house, dancing with outstretched arms. "Throw it!"

The farmer did. But to the delight of the merry riders, the squawking chicken escaped and the chase was on. Spectators laughed and popped beers. Dozens of crazily dressed young men tumbled over each other in wild pursuit of the frantic chicken as it scurried through bushes onto a field.

Suddenly, a rider costumed as the devil took a do-or-die dive. "Got it!" He held his bounty high.

"T'es pas unbebe!" (You're no baby, in Cajun French) yelled the Mardi Gras capitaine , as he trotted to the devil to claim the chicken. Then he raised his white flag and blew his cow horn, the signal to move on. The 140 Mardi Gras riders obeyed the command and rode down the country road to another farmer's house.

Like Forefathers

"This is the way we've always run Mardi Gras," boasted Paul Tate Jr., president of the Mardi Gras Assn. in Mamou, a small town 50 miles northwest of Lafayette on Louisiana 13.

"We celebrate Mardi Gras like our forefathers did. Our band of masked riders roam the countryside asking for contributions for a communal gumbo served back in Mamou at the end of the day. We prefer chicken, but onions, rice, sausage, flour, ducks--even a few dollars--are just fine."

Mardi Gras in rural southwestern Louisiana is known as the Country Mardi Gras. Cajun towns such as Church Point, Soileau, Lange Megge, Swords and Basile have them. But the one out of Mamou is the oldest, most traditional and best organized.

Cajuns are descendants of French farmers. Their forebears were expelled by the British from Acadia (now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) in 1755. For years they wandered the Atlantic seaboard, eventually settling in Louisiana. Isolated well into the 20th Century from the mainstream of American development, Cajuns clung to their language and culture, developing their own cuisine, architecture, crafts and music.

Country Mardi Gras distinctively differs from Mardi Gras carnivals in Rio de Janeiro, Nice, Quebec, New Orleans and even Lafayette, the hub city of Louisiana's Cajun country.

For one thing, there are no parades, floats, kings, queens or balls. Also, Country Mardi Gras is not glittery, glamorous, commercial or expensive. (In Lafayette, for example, the elaborate costume for just one Mardi Gras king or queen easily runs $10,000.)

Country Mardi Gras is called the Courir de Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras run. In Mamou it's an all-day festival the Tuesday before Lent. It's filled with mischievous horseplay, boundless good humor, non-stop Cajun music, caldrons of steaming gumbo, street dancing, make-your-own costumes and barrels of beer.

The Courir de Mardi Gras has roots in medieval time when ceremonial begging celebrations featured performances in anticipation of a donation. Country Mardi Gras participants, in turn, dance and sing for their gumbo ingredients.

Courir de Mardi Gras costumes are often parodies of medieval social classes. Conical hats parody nobility, miters parody clergy and mortarboards parody scholars. False collars and ostentatious harlequin costumes add medieval flavor. Then, of course, there are the other costumes--clowns, spacemen, monsters and wild, nondescript creations.

Cajun musicians who follow the Mardi Gras run more or less resemble medieval royal jesters. Just as royal jesters never participated directly in the merrymaking, the Mardi Gras musicians never leave their wagon.

In the 19th and early 20th Century the Courir de Mardi Gras was celebrated in much of rural French Louisiana, but the modernizing effect of new schools and churches and the "Americanization" of Cajun culture eventually led to its demise.

Also, in many places, the run had become unruly and dangerous. Scores were often settled on this day with bare fists, knives and even pistols.

Revive Tradition

In 1950 Paul C. Tate undertook to revive the traditional Mardi Gras run in Mamou. But unlike the old days, when the bawdy affair often erupted into drunken fights, today's Mardi Gras run is under the iron hand of le capitaine , a man with absolute control over his riders' behavior.

Any male 16 or over can participate if he wears a costume and mask, pays the $8 fee and bears no weapons. Those without horses ride in tractor-drawn wagons. Beer and food along the way are free, as is the gumbo at the end of the day.

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