Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Because It's Carnival Time

Today is Epiphany, Twelfth Night, the kick off of Carnival. Although the Mardi Gras doesn't really get going until much closer to Fat Tuesday (24 February, this year), but between now and then a lot of balls are held and an increasing number of parades.

For some reason, around this time of year, some Kindergeist memory crawls out of my mind and starts whistling "Jockomo." "... My spy boy met your spy boy sitting by the bayou / My spy boy told your spy boy, 'I'm gonna set yo flag on fi-o ...'" The song, with its cryptic refrain "iko iko, iko iko ahn dey / jockomo fee lo ahn nan dey / jockomo fee nah nay," just sticks in the brain, along with other music from Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias, and other Mardi Gras artists/songs that filled the airwaves of my youth. (Of course, try as I might, "Grandma Got Run Over by a King Float" works its way into my mind too.)

The version of "Jockomo" (frequently entitled "Iko Iko" or "Aiko Aiko") I like best is the raw R&B-tinged James "Sugar Boy" Crawford version, although the Dixie Cups' version is probably heard more frequently. Crawford's just strikes me as more true to the Mardi Gras Indians chants and patois from which the song was drawn.

The phrase jockomo fee nah nay ['ga:-ke-məu fi: 'nã: '] has been parsed (not to mention transcribed/pronounced) several different ways. I first learned its meaning as something along the lines of "kiss my ass" (I don't remember the source, but it probably was an interview with or stage comment from one of the Neville Brothers), and this Houston Institute of Culture transcript backs up that understanding:
While the exact meaning of the words is not known, the rhythms of the Mardi Gras Indians come from Africa and the Caribbean. Slaves performed the elaborate African rhythms at weekly gatherings, a tradition that continued into the Twentieth Century at New Orleans' famous Congo Square. The origins of the chanted phrases, however, are not known. Phrases like "Jockomo-Fee-Nah-Ney" may have been defiant secret dialogue used to tell slave masters or chain gang bosses to "Go to Hell."
Searching around online, several pages claim jockomo means "jester." There're no references, but according to a stray post on a Wordorigins.org discussion board:
Some folklorists believe "Iko" translates roughly as "I Go". "An-dan-day" might represent "On that day" or "on one day" (i.e., Mardi Gras). "Jockamo" probably means jester (French root, I believe); "Jockamo Fee-No an-dan-day," according to some versions, implies "Jester won't 'clown' [in the vernacular sense of cause trouble or fight] on that day" -- a veiled challenge meaning, basically: "I'm not here to cause trouble, as long as you're not."
I guess it's possible jockomo could be a cousin to jongleur -- which comes into English via French from the Old French jogleor, from the Latin ioculātor (jester) -- but it seems more likely to derive from (or at least be influanced by) an African language, maybe a word or phrase related to something like the Akan/Twi verb gye kyim (to argue). (I am not a professional linguist by any means, so I can speculate with abandon.)

In any case, I have a stack of Neville Brothers and other New Orleans CDs with me today in honor of the start of Carnival and to help dredge up memories of the parades of youth -- like the time a group of neighborhood kids got our bikes and a go-kart together with a bunch of leftover throws and had our own parade, which mostly consisted of us throwing beads into the ditches that lined the subdivision.

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