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New Orleans Tries Different Carnival Music


No one knows what it will look like or sound like or feel like. But on Tuesday, a new carnival crew in New Orleans promises to be a spectacular debut. The Krewe Du Kanaval is a joint effort between Preservation Hall, the keepers of some of the city's most sacred jazz traditions, and members of the rock band Arcade Fire. They're planning a street parade, a concert, a jam session and a ball. Most importantly, they're encouraging fans to listen to a different kind of carnival music. Gwen Thompkins has more.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: When people talk about Creole New Orleans, Creole food, Creole patois, Creole architecture, Creole culture, they often mean Haitian. That's because Haitian immigration at the beginning of the 19th century doubled the size of New Orleans and had a lasting effect on how the city still looks and eats and celebrates. That's what Regine Chassagne noticed right away. She's the daughter of Haitian immigrants born and raised in Montreal, Canada. Chassagne is one of the leaders of Arcade Fire and, in recent years, has kept a home here in New Orleans.

REGINA CHASSAGNE: For me, it's the Caribbean, Haitian and the French combo which is really fascinating to me because that's what I grew up with in Montreal. But it's almost like a different outcome of the similar ingredients. So that's why I find it so familiar and trippy. And I just love it.

THOMPKINS: For Chassagne and her bandmate husband Win Butler, New Orleans is a spiritual and aesthetic middle ground between Montreal and Haiti. In Arcade Fire, they ride all manner of cultural margins in ever-spectacular ways. And for Ben Jaffe, the creative mastermind of Preservation Hall, Arcade Fire helps New Orleans understand itself in a different way. Without a swab test or a sit-down with Henry Louis Gates or mailing hair samples to a dot-com, these musicians are exploring a shared history. And they're doing it as only musicians can - with their ears.

BEN JAFFE: I mean, especially after I went to Haiti - and, like, you can actually see the ways that New Orleans is connected to Haiti and with the way people act towards one another and the relationship people have to music, as it's not - you know, not that's something that's separate and apart from their life but something that's part of their DNA.


THOMPKINS: And yet people here love their traditions. Every year, songs by Professor Longhair, Al Johnson, the brass bands and the Mardi Gras Indians dominate community radio. And the city can't get enough. Why? Because when you go to New Orleans, you want to go see the Mardi Gras.


PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: (Singing) When you see the Mardi Gras, somebody'll tell you what's carnival for.

THOMPKINS: The usual 34 parades are rolling this season in Orleans Parish. And people are also eating the same king cakes and masking with the same enthusiasm as they have for a long time.


PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: (Singing) And if you stare right there, I'm sure you'll see the Zulu queen.

THOMPKINS: But Preservation Hall and Arcade Fire have a history of finding traditional ways to address modern ambitions. Just after David Bowie died in 2016, they organized a parade in the French Quarter in his honor. Butler is still incredulous.

WIN BUTLER: People were in such mourning. You know, I mean, I was in such mourning. And we had no idea that 10,000 people were going to show up. It was crazy. I've definitely never played for 10,000 people with no PA before. It was definitely a feat.


THOMPKINS: Traditionally, the Tuesday before Mardi Gras has been a dull day in New Orleans. But the Krewe Du Kanaval will feature an assortment of musicians from Haiti, Preservation Hall, Arcade Fire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and other Francophone stops at a free concert at Congo Square. Then they'll walk to a French Quarter club, where crew members will hold their first ball.

Damas Louis is a Haitian master drummer who's also known as Fanfan. He can't wait.

DAMAS LOUIS: For me, it's like a dream come true because that's been, like, six years. And New Orleans - every time I see the parade, I say, how come we don't have Haitian in that?

THOMPKINS: Louis is in the final stages of planning a rara, a traditional and sometimes mystical celebration of life and death that predates the New Orleans second line. Proceeds from Krewe memberships will go toward the nonprofit Preservation Hall Foundation and KANPE, a nonprofit organization founded by Regine Chassagne that helps women and families in one of the poorest communities of Haiti's Central Plateau region. In Haitian Creole, kanpe means stand up. And families there find local solutions to accessing medical care, education for their children and microfinancing for agricultural work.

CHASSAGNE: That's where the investment is worth it because you can buy a thing. And the thing is just a thing. Even a building is just a building. But the building won't do anything. It'll just sit there. But if you invest in the people, the people will make something out of it.

THOMPKINS: Of course, every carnival crew has its own royal court. Singer Irma Thomas will be queen. And who knows? There may be a moment of deja vu in store for Maryse Dejean (ph) on Tuesday night. She left Haiti with her parents at the age of four. But she never forgot Kanaval.

MARYSE DEJEAN: I remember the music and the rustle of gowns. And I especially remember, too, seeing one of the carnival queens blowing kisses from a float. And then I thought, oh, I'm going to blow a kiss, too. And I did. And she returned the kiss (laughter). It's amazing what we remember.

THOMPKINS: Maybe New Orleans has room for a new carnival tradition after all. I'm Gwen Thompkins.


Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.