Anatomy of a Mardi Gras Indian Song Classic
By E. Osborne
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day (traditionally a Tuesday in either February or March), on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19), on “Super Sunday” (usually the Sunday after St. Joseph’s Day) or during the Jazz & Heritage Festival (late April-early May), you’ve probably seen the parades by African-American revelers in elaborate bead-feather-and-sequin attire inspired in part by Native American regalia. These are the so-called Mardi Gras Indians, and during such parades the various “tribes” — who bear names such as the Wild Tchapitoulas, the Wild Magnolias, the Golden Eagles, the Yellow Pocahontas, and the Ninth Ward Hunters — go from place to place, drumming, dancing, and singing songs that glorify their own group and taunt their rivals when they stop to engage in ritualized face-offs. During such encounters, a staple song in the repertoires of these groups is “Jock-A-Mo” (also “Jockomo”), whose lyrics go something like the following:
My flag boy and your flag boy
Was sittin’ by the fi-yo
My flag boy told yo flag boy
I’mo set yo flag on fi-yo
Talkin’ ‘bout hey now! Hey now!
Iko, Iko, anday
Jockomo fee no, ah na nay
Jockamo fee na nay
“Jock-A-Mo” harkens back to a time when the threat by one flag boy (a tribe’s standard-bearer) to set another’s flag on fire was an affront that would’ve resulted in violence. These days, however, when Mardi Gras Indians meet, they engage in symbolic showdowns with the big chiefs prancing and showcasing their “suits” and crowns (headdresses) — that can cost thousands of dollars in materials and countless hours of sewing to complete — in bids to be determined the “prettiest” (Mardi Gras).
The origin of the song and its meaning(s)
“Jock-A-Mo” owes its genesis to James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, a New Orleans singer who combined two Mardi Gras Indian chants (one of which might’ve been “Ooh Na Nay”) and recorded the result on the Checker Records label in 1953. Crawford didn’t “mask Indian,” but he was well acquainted with the chants, the meaning of whose words he later confessed to not knowing.
Crawford was hardly alone. The song’s chorus long has intrigued investigators, some of whom have deemed the words nonsensical, and others who have proposed a variety of origins. There are those, for example, who think that the song’s title, at least, might have been inspired by the Italian male given name Giacomo, which translates as James or Jacob. And though this possibility seems an unlikely one, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. As early as the mid-19th century, New Orleans was one of the primary destinations of Italian immigrants, and some might well have been acquainted with members of the Mardi Gras Indian groups.
Others trace certain of the song’s words to Mobilian Jargon (an extinct trade language based in part on Choctaw and Chickasaw) that once was used by area Native Americans, Blacks, and Whites. As an example, they cite the words jockomo fee no, which indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mobilian Jargon phrase Chokma finha, meaning “very good” or “It’s very good” (Iko Iko).
To be sure, the attributing of a Native American origin to certain of the song’s words has merit. In fact, it is ascribed to by not a few participants in the New Orleans Black Indian community, who say that they mask Indian as a way of paying homage to the Native American groups who gave refuge to their African ancestors fleeing area plantations.
Still others trace the origin of the song to the French Creole language spoken in the New Orleans area in the early 19th century, a speech system that was influenced by several West and Central African languages with different grammatical structures. Added to this mix was the Kreyòl spoken by the thousands of refugees who fled to the city in the late 18th century in the wake of the revolution in St. Domingue (present-day Haiti). The result, then, was that the Creole language tended to differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, and this difference was reflected in the various meanings offered for the lyrics of “Jock-A-Mo” (Mardi Gras)
Then there are those who attribute certain of the song’s words to African languages. These languages include Yoruba, spoken in Nigeria and parts of Benin; and Akan (a language cluster that includes Asante and Fante) and Ewe — the former spoken in Ghana and part of Ivory Coast and the latter in Ghana and Togo. As an example, for his April 1, 2009, article in the New Orleans music magazine OffBeat (“Iko Iko: In Search of Jockomo”), Drew Hinshaw consulted Ghanaian linguist Evershed Amuzu, who traced the words “Iko Iko” to ayeko, ayeko, meaning “well done,” or “congratulations,” among both the Akan and Ewe. Significantly, both groups were taken to New Orleans directly from West Africa and, indirectly, via Haiti during the period of the previously mentioned Haitian Revolution (Iko Iko).
Finally, there’s the likely contribution from languages of the Senegambia and neighboring areas of West Africa. As Michael P. Smith notes in Mardi Gras Indians, “Historically, the downtown Creole community descends more directly from the Senegambian peoples….” (128). Of these, the more likely contributor to the Mardi Gras Indian song repertoire is Bamanankan, the language of the Bamanan — their own name for themselves rather than Bambara, often used, erroneously, by English speakers — the main group in present-day Mali.
The French trans-Atlantic slave trade to Louisiana took place almost entirely during the early 1700s, and it is well-documented that the Bamanan constituted a well-organized language community well into the 18th century. As Gwen Midlo Hall points out in Africans in Colonial Louisiana, “Bambara captives were brought to Louisiana in such large numbers that they figured significantly in the formation of the colony’s Afro-Creole culture” (41–42; 288).
Although I had visited New Orleans on many occasions, I was unaware of the likely Bamanankan contribution to the Mardi Gras song canon until the early 1990s. While researching African linguistic retentions in U. S. English with my late friend and colleague Mouhamadou Ouattara, a Bamanankan speaker from Sikasso, Mali, it occurred to me that some of the words in “Jock-A-Mo” might derive from Bamanankan.
Indeed, the likelihood of a Bamanankan origin of some of the song’s words is compelling. Consider, for example, the reduplicated “Iko, Iko.” This form is strikingly similar to Bamanankan I ko (pronounced EE koh), which translates as “You say.” Then there’s the rest of the chorus:
Jockomo fee no, ah na nay
Jockomo fee na nay
With the exception of no in the first instance above, the words “Jockomo fee no, ah na nay” appear to be a corruption of Bamanankan Jakuma fin na né, which translates roughly as “Black cat, come to me” — lit., Jakuma (“cat”) + fin (“black”) + na (“come”) + né (“me/I”).
So how, you might ask, does a black cat figure in all this?
Well, bear in mind that New Orleans was, and remains, a center of the religious belief system of Vodou, and its offshoot Hoodoo, in the United States. Unlike Vodou, though, Hoodoo does not have a pantheon of deities but rather is an esoteric practice associated primarily with activities designed to influence, or change, undesirable conditions. Voilà! The black cat — thought by old-time Hoodoo root doctors, or conjurers, to have mystical powers. Every black cat, they claim, has in its body a certain bone that can be used to fashion mojo hands, potent charms that reportedly enable the possessor to accomplish any of a number of aims, including attracting money, winning back a straying lover, or, when, appearing in court for an offense, avoiding jail time.
Bear in mind, too, that although today the Bamanan are predominantly Muslim, a great number of those transported to Louisiana during the slave trade likely were not. In fact, Bámànán translates as “those who refuse Islam” (in other words, “Unbelievers,” or “Infidels”). This is because they resisted conversion to the religion until the late 19th century (Hall 41). In Louisiana, they apparently continued to follow their traditional worship, and this included the making and use of charms, which just might explain the black cat reference in “Jock-A-Mo.”
Even so, rather than having been derived from a single source, the words in the chants that gave rise to "Jock-A-Mo” appear to have disparate origins, as do a great many of the people who call New Orleans home.
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the
Eighteenth Century. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge and London 1992.
Smith, Michael P. Mardi Gras Indians. Pelican Publishing Company: Gretna, 1994.
“Iko Iko — Wikipedia.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iko_Iko. Accessed 6 May 2022.
www.mardigrasindianshow.com/history. Accessed 6 May 2022.