(CNN) — As winter drags into March, the Big Easy will explode into a cacophony of color, music and dance. Carnival started here January 6, but it’s the weekend before Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday (March 4), that has become the biggest street party in the United States.
Contrary to reputation, carnival here is largely a family friendly affair, with the most authentic events taking place far from the rum-soaked, topless naughtiness of the French Quarter. If you’re looking to experience the unique traditions of New Orleans’ carnival, you need to find the “krewes,” neighborhood social clubs that organize their own parades, complete with flashy floats and their own carnival king and queen.
Be sure to bring bags to catch the “throws” — beads, stuffed animals and other trinkets that are tossed to the crowd. Information about parade schedules, routes and other carnival events and history is available online, although routes are subject to change up until the day of the parade.
New Orleans also illustrates the story of carnival throughout the New World: Groups that were initially excluded from the festivities, especially people of African descent, created their own parallel celebrations, which over time flourished and became fundamental features of carnival. In New Orleans, nothing demonstrates this history like the Mardi Gras Indians.
Distinct from the krewes, these “tribes,” or “gangs,” began appearing in late 19th century New Orleans, representing specific neighborhoods. In the old days, gangs would battle one another to assert territory. Today, they battle for the title of “prettiest” big chief, the ceremonial leader of each tribe.
The chief and his family work on his carnival costume throughout the year, constructing stunning suits of satin, beads, sequins and rhinestones and enormous plumed headdresses that shake and sway like some rare, exotic creature.
Other members of the tribe along with spectators march randomly through their neighborhood, where they may encounter other Indians. They dance to the sounds of jazz, blues and the distinctive call-and-response that brings the sounds of West Africa to the rich musical melting pot of Louisiana. Mardi Gras Indians do not march on specific city-sanctioned routes, so talk to locals and tourist information officials to find out where and when to see them.