Rule the school: Mobile’s juvenile Mardi Gras king and queen in 2010. Photo: Jeff and Meggan Haller/Keyhole Photo/Corbis
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The secret history of Mardi Gras

Segregated Mardi Gras in Alabama tells us a lot about life in the South.

There were only three of us in the Mardi Gras museum – me and two costume designers on tour with a circus from Brooklyn. I’d seen about as much of Mobile, Alabama, as I could stand in the midday heat: the cemetery full of yellow fever victims, the State Street Zion Church, set up by slaves ejected from mainstream Methodist services in the 1820s.

I wanted to know more about the purple beads that I’d seen slung in the trees in New Orleans years earlier, a full three months after Mardi Gras had ended: the residue of a wild week in which, as I understood it, frat boys joined outrageous queens and black jazz players in a binge of Green Hurricane cocktails. This deliciously debauched and liberal celebration of all human life apparently started here in Alabama – which struck me as strange, somehow. A tiny old lady led us into a large room where a carnival float the shape of a dragon stood against the wall. The parades are in January, she said, but really, the festival went on all year and there was a party that night.

Mardi Gras arrived with French settlers in 1703, but in Mobile they like to start the story with Michael Krafft, a one-eyed cotton broker who got drunk with friends on New Year’s Eve in 1830 and raided Partridge Hardware Store, seizing hoes and forks and marauding through the streets to the mayor’s house, where he was invited in for breakfast. Krafft formed the first society – or “mystic order” – to lead a parade around the city. Other cotton workers set up a rival group. Then more emerged, tied up with the city’s businesses, with names like medieval guilds: the Knights of Revelry, the Maids of Mirth.

There are more than 40 mystic societies in Mobile today. The social and economic lives of powerful local families revolve around them, though their influence remains hard to assess because membership is secret – as with the Masons. Some gatherings are masked.

We pass photos of families from the 1920s decked out in Charles II wigs, tights and ballet shoes. Every year, a young man is elected as King Felix III, the carnival ruler, with an appropriate girl as his queen. They are graduate age, not generally a couple, and from “good families”, our host says. The elaborate trains they wear in the parade can cost thousands of dollars apiece. On video screens, we see the esteemed young monarchs presented at “courts” (the country club, the civic centre), draped in fur and satin, picking their way through tough, unspoken codes of conduct.

They are all white. Mobile has a segregated Mardi Gras. The black group was set up in 1938 as the Colored Carnival Association. We ask why the two events remain separate in 2015. Our host explains that this is the way it has always been. “The black community want it that way,” she says.

There’s a small display dedicated to the Comic Cowboys, an order who ride behind the posh floats bearing irreverent banners: a cartoon of a moustachioed gay man pissing a rainbow, a caricature of the first openly gay (and black) NFL player, with the slogan “Cowboys cut Michael Sam – not because he’s gay, because he sucks”.

“Those guys are pretty cheeky,” our host says.

There has been a lot of talk, after the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, about Southern ways, Southern attitudes and the shadows they cast. One weekday afternoon in Mobile tells you things are still done differently here. At night, I walk back past the museum to find its community life in full swing. The open windows cast pools of light on the garden, where very young, very smart white boys in patent leather shoes, chinos and short-sleeved shirts are gathering – future King Felixes, some of them.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.