ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. All this week, NPR's Farai Chideya looks at New Orleans.

Today we start with two reports. First, a look the Mardi Gras celebrations. Mardi Gras is part of the tradition of Carnival, a festival of excess which began in the 12th century in Rome. The word carnival literally means, flesh farewell. The celebrations led up the fasting and self sacrifices of lent in the Christian calendar. Now, the University of California Los Angeles has compiled an audio video history of carnival celebrations from around the world. For a tour of the exhibition, Farai Chideya joined Betsy Quick, director of education at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Ms. BETSY QUICK (Director of Education, Fowler Institute): The first site that we enter is in Laza, Spain, and it is a celebration that dates back hundreds of years and yet has elements of contemporary life, as well. One of the very first groups of masqueraders that you encounter are the Peliquieros. And the Peliquieros are wearing wonderfully brilliant costumes with--let's see, how can I describe them--a kind of white...

CHIDEYA: I think you might call them almost girlish ruffles with lace underneath, but I'm sure they would be very angry and they would attack me with the whips that they have if I said that to them in Spanish.

Ms. QUICK: They hearken back to tax collectors. And apparently, tax collectors would go through the town, and with grimacing faces on a mask, remind everyone it was time to pay their taxes. They run through the village wearing huge cowbells on their waist. And when you hear the sound of these characters, you know something is happening in Laza.

(Soundbite of cowbells)

CHIDEYA: Throughout this exhibit, you also have audio visual elements. How did you go through the process or how did this exhibit go through the process of acquiring these videos?

Ms. QUICK: If you can imagine, there are eight cities--eight cities and towns I should say, and video crews that were recording Carnival in each of those cities.

CHIDEYA: Great. Take us to the next part of the world.

(Soundbite of drums)

Ms. QUICK: Now we're in Recife Olinda, Brazil. So we come to the Americas. Of course, Carnival came with the colonizers.

CHIDEYA: You've got extremely elaborate costumes here. Some of them are huge puppet, almost twice the size of a human being, I guess carried by one person?

Ms. QUICK: Yes, carried by one person. They represent familiar characters in the Olinda environment. And they are, I think, 15, 20 feet high. They're really quite amazing.

CHIDEYA: And it seems the other costumes are colonial is some ways?

Ms. QUICK: Yes. Actually, you're absolutely right. This is the Maracatu Nation Drum Corps costume, and here it is again recalling the tradition of Portuguese royalty. But never just as a commentary, always with an edge of sarcasm, and edge of parity. One thing that I'm sure you noticed as we've been going through the exhibition, that as we enter each of the exhibitions there is an entry way that is very particular to the region. So you really have a sense that you're a little bit into the community, because you've entered through a doorway that is about Trinidad.

And in fact, here is where we are. We're in Trinidad now.

CHIDEYA: I can hear the cowbells, more cowbells.

Ms. QUICK: If you spend any time in this exhibition, you almost can't help yourself but you're starting to dance. And that's really what Carnival is about. It's about movement; it's about consumption; it's about identity; it's about community. And I think you see all of that in each of these sites.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. QUICK: We have a masquerade costume with a headdress which is about four feet long and has a ship on the top of it, all in sequins and fabric and gold and gewgaws, and it's really kind of an identity statement about Trinidad Tobago's location in the Caribbean.

CHIDEYA: And last but not least, we have a place that has been going through quite a bit, New Orleans. Tells us a little about what we're seeing here.

Ms. QUICK: This is such poignant space for all of us. We have a number of different Mardi Gras elements in this exhibition, one being a costume from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The Zulu Krewe began many, many years ago with African Americans in this instance going in so called blackface, wearing the dress of Zulu kings and queens--but mocking the hierarchy of traditional white Mardi Gras.

And just behind us are two masks from the Mardi Gras Indians. And I'm hearing the Wild Chapatulus behind. And this is the one area of the exhibition where we just can't help ourselves from dancing. And in the face of having communities blocked out of Carnival, what we see in New Orleans, especially with Mardi Gras Indians and Zulus, if we can't come in, we'll make our own Carnival.

CHIDEYA: In fact, in New Orleans there have been very different places for the majority white population celebrating and the majority black population celebrating, even up to the present day.

Ms. QUICK: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. QUICK: We're closing this exhibition and this section with a couple of images, one a policeman on horseback going through the close of carnival. It is said the success of Carnival is measured by the amount trash that is picked up. And a final image of people at church going to the priest and having the cross of ash drawn on the head, which denotes the beginning of lent. And of course, then the time when you give up something of importance, and you're preparing yourself for the important time of Easter.

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much for the tour.

Ms. QUICK: Thank you very much.

GORDON: That was Betty Quick, director of education for the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, at the University of California Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display there until late April. It then travels to San Diego, New Orleans and Dallas. There's also more about the exhibition on our website at npr.org.

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