Many rivers converged to make a New Orleans classic: ‘Iko Iko’

Mardi Gras Indian. Credit: Joel Mann

It’s one of the most iconic songs from New Orleans, and like the city, it’s origin and meaning are a product of may different influences.

Its meaning is still being debated by scholars and linguists, but “Iko Iko” was first recorded in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who wrote the pop song “Jock-A-Mo” based on 2 different Mardi Gras Indian chants. The Mardi Gras “Indians” are actually African-American groups who have been parading as Indian tribes at Mardi Gras since the mid-19th Century.

Over the years the custom has evolved into a competition based on costumes and dances. To learn more about the Mardi Gras Indians here’s a Wikpedia article:

The precise origin and meaning of the lyrics has been the subject of much debate. Theories about the origins include Louisiana Creole French, Choctaw and Chickasaw, and West African. Here is one of many articles that attempt to parse the linguistics:

Whatever the exact source of the chants, “Iko Iko” tells the story of two competing tribes confronting each other at a parade. And though “Sugar Boy” Crawford recorded it in 1953, The Dixie Cups (2 sisters and a cousin) said they learned the song from their grandmother, making it much older. The Dixie Cups recorded it in 1965; apparently it was not planned, they were just messing around in the studio, not knowing that the tape was rolling. Here’s a live clip of them singing “Iko Iko”:

Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, has been a mainstay of New Orleans music, going back to the 1950’s, when he started work as a session player. His 1968 album Gris-Gris, and 1972’s Gumbo (with “Iko Iko”) introduced the pop music world to the intricately syncopated and funky sounds of New Orleans. This clip shows Dr. John at the piano explaining what influenced him:

Along with Dr. John, The Neville Brothers are among the best-known bands from New Orleans. Formed in the late 70’s, the Nevilles epitomize the melting pot of influences that make up New Orleans music, from early R&B to soul, jazz and hard-core funk.  Here’s a great live clip of the Neville Brothers performing “Iko Iko” in a medley with “Brother John”:

Here are the complete versions of “Iko Iko”:


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