Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jockomo Fee Na Nay

This is an edited exerpt from a sermon I think, written by Rev. Jim VanderWeele...

You Don't Care What the Big Chief Say...

Rev. Jim VanderWeele

Mardi Gras, 2008


Mardi Gras is a "season" in the city of New Orleans. People from around the world filter into town for Carnival, taking in its many parades, maybe a Mardi Gras ball (if invited), the brass bands, the 24-hours of revelry, and our fun-loving locals. A few come only for the rambunctious Quarter, but this collegial slice-of-life is a teeny portion of the entirety of the full Mardi Gras experience.

Hope you enjoy this glimpse into one of the things that makes New Orleans such a special place…

Reading, from whitegum.com

“Crewes parade through the New Orleans streets on Mardi Gras Day wearing extravagant ceremonial Indian clothes. They face off when they meet and have battles of clothing, dancing, and singing. The Spy Boy is a ceremonial position (the front runner who scouts out other tribes to do battle with) as is the Flag Boy, Wild Man, and Big Chief. Friends and family who follow are in the ‘second line’ and are therefore second liners. So lines like ‘My spy boy to your spy boy, I'm gonna set your tail on fire’ are ceremonial challenges to the other tribe.”

You Don’t Care What the Big Chief Say…

Does anyone here know about The Wild Magnolias? Who they are? What they do?

They are not only a Mardi Gras tribe, they are also a band. One of their songs begins, “You don’t care what the Big Chief say”—our title today. But its next line made a bigger impression on me, “Jockomo Fee-na Nay.” And I wondered when I heard them here, “What do these words mean?”

I know these words. I have heard them before, in Aiko, Aiko—a local classic, …truly a Mardi Gras tune, …a foot stoppin’, second-lining number if I ever heard one. I have also heard “Jockamo Fee-na Nay” in other songs, but this Wild Magnolias treatment led to a legitimate search for their meaning.

So my plan this morning (as an import to New Orleans) is to discuss a few words many here may know much better than I do. When I first heard “Jockomo Fee-na Nay” I thought they were sounds, like scat in jazz, …sounds intermingled with lyrics. But when I thought about the Wild Magnolias usage, I could hear a response to “You don’t care what the Big Chief say…”

My initial search revealed the French name Giacomo, meaning John. When this is placed with “fin,” it could mean “John is dead.” But this seems much too easy—even though the Neville Brothers sing, “Brother John is gone.” Doesn’t it seem like a poor response to “You Don’t Care What the Big Chief says…” -----“John is dead?”

I then found that Bob Weir, a singer and rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead (who regularly sang Aiko, Aiko) said “Jockomo” is a Swahili word meaning “If you don’t like it, …‘that’s your problem’,” [pause here, implying other wordin] or “Take this job and shove it.” I also read that slaves might have used this phrase to tell their masters to “Go to [another pause] a very, very hot place.” This could work, as a snub, a put down. But I also found some other notes.

My earliest recollection of Aiko, Aiko was on Dr. John’s Gumbo (from 1972). Its liner says:

“This song was written and recorded in the early 1950's by…James Crawford who worked under the name of Sugar Boy & The Cane Cutters. In the original group were Professor Longhair on piano, Jake Myles, Big Boy Myles, Irv Bannister on guitar, and Eugene 'Bones' Jones on drums. This group was also known as the Cipaka Shaweez. The song was originally called 'Jockomo' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockomo means 'jester' in the old myth.”

A “jester,” hmmm. I could work with this, spin some tales about my early life, seeing things that disturbed me and spoofing them, …just a bit, …never too maliciously, …yet taking a verbal jab, …or putting on a character, (for the benefit of my ‘elders’) …whatever it took to suggest a younger, and different, and maybe even a better view toward life.

But, maybe this word “Jockomo” does not mean “jester.” I once heard that Dr. John is as likely to tell you a lie as tell you the truth. It depends on what you want to hear, or, what jester’s games he is playing.

So I kept digging, looking for more about “Jockomo Fee-na Nay.” One musicologist wrote,

“‘Joc-a-mo-fee-no-ah-nah-nay, Joc-a-mo-fee-nah-nay’ is a ritual chant used by the Mardi Gras Indians which has been around for so long the words are no longer clearly distinguishable, and it has a well understood meaning of its own. Very, very loosely translated it signifies ‘we mean business’ or ‘don't mess with us.’”

I found many other references to Indian tribes and their spy boys, the runners who looked for other tribes, so they could face off in their battles: of clothing, dancing, and singing. All of this happened, of course, on Fat Tuesday.

“It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second time' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone now because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together.”

Now this is beginning to make some sense, at least making some Mardi Gras sense. “Jockomo Fee-na Nay” is shouted as tribes gather, hoping to one-up each other with their costumes (those elegant feathery headdresses and gowns) carefully sewn over the course of the year.

A favorite local expression is, “You been sewin’?” And the men were doing this sewing, getting ready for their strutting, showin’ off, making music, dancing, partying, and having some fun. Doctor John said, they “used to get juiced up, …ready to perform, …in their own special style during Mardi Gras.” This cry, “Jockamo Fee-na Nay” alerted locals they were on the way and ready for music, dancing, …their own second line parade. Ready for a party, a Mardi Gras party.

My research also revealed that Bo Dollis, the lead singer for The Wild Magnolias, is called “Big Chief.” And, that Earl King, in 1964, wrote a classic Mardi Gras song called Big Chief, but it may have been named for his heavyset mother, who was nicknamed “Big Chief.”

My supposition is that there were plenty of “Big Chiefs” around, perhaps the leaders of their tribes or of other tribes—and a jester, or a spy boy, flag boy, or a Wild Man could lead them on (or show their opposition) when they were out there shouting, “Jockomo Fee-na Nay.”

Now, while the meaning of these words may have been apparent many years ago, say, during a time of enslavement, it is possible that its meaning, just like its spelling or pronunciation, has receded as time has moved on. So, it could be French, or Swahili, or Cajun-American, but it still sounds like an invitation to come on out and enter the party—at least that my thought when I hear, “Jocomo Fee-na Nay.”

* * *

Now, I must confess that after I examined “Jockomo Fee-na Nay,” I found that I know less of its meaning than when I thought it was a rhythmic but nonsensical “scat” folded into a Mardi Gras tune.

This was made clear to me when I read an interview in a 2002 offBeat magazine. Originally, said its introduction, Aiko, Aiko was called “Jock-A-Mo” a song composed in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” “Jockamo” Crawford.

Interviewer: How did you construct 'Jock-A-Mo?'

Crawford: It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. 'Iko Iko' was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. 'Jock-A-Mo' was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” …a phrase everyone in New Orleans knew. Lloyd Price just added music to it and it became a hit. I was just trying to write a catchy song.

Interviewer: Listeners wonder what 'Jock-A-Mo' means. Some music scholars say it translates in Mardi Gras Indian lingo as 'Kiss my ass,' and I've read where some think Jock-A-Mo was a court jester. What does it mean?

Crawford: I really don't know. (laughs)

May the love in my heart meet the love in yours. Namaste

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