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New Orleans: Festival Capital of the World?

Photo by: Chris Granger
by Adam Karlin | @adamkarlin Wed November 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM

The word 'festival' connotes food and music, which taken together are the brick and mortar of New Orleans. To perhaps overextend the analogy, in the Big Easy, said brick and mortar is encased in the drywall of celebration, which sits at the core of the city's character. But you probably knew that, just as you knew New Orleans has a long and deep history. What you may not know is how history and parties collide, how this town's festivals are not just an excuse for a good time, but expressions of cultural, historical and community identity. Accompanied, of course, by good food and music. Here's some of our favorite local examples of the above.

 

Carnival

Photo credit: Derek Bridges via Flickr Creative Commons

Many tourists don't realize Mardi Gras is the culmination of an entire micro-season known as Carnival (see: Al Jolson's Carnival Time). For about three weeks prior to Fat Tuesday (dates change every year), New Orleans is transfixed by parades, parties and music, increasing to a heady, wine-soaked fever pitch as the main event approaches.

 

Mardi Gras

Photo credit: Cheryl Gerber

Fat Tuesday is way more than boobs and beads. It can be those things if you're clueless, but mainly, it's a procession and party for each of the city's constituent enclaves – from the pomp of city fathers in the Rex parade to the anything goes Burning Man on the Bayou art explosion of the St Anne parade.

 

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Photo credit: Xmith Xmith via Flickr Creative Commons

Jazz Fest showcases any music that has New Orleans roots, a rubric that potentially encompasses the entirety of Western pop. A dozen stages, thousands of visitors and a stupid amount of good food takes over the Fair Grounds Race Course, and smaller acts often put on shows that trump the major headliners.

 

French Quarter Fest

Photo credit: Margot Landen for French Quarter Festivals, Inc.

Think Jazz Fest, but free. Instead of tents on a field, stages are scattered throughout the eponymous French Quarter. Good food is provided via festival stands or the adjacent excellent restaurants of New Orleans herself. And these days, the music lineup matches major festivals across the country.

 

Mid-Summer Mardi Gras

Photo credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr Creative Commons

August is the baking hot, soup humid slow season in New Orleans. It's also generally the exact midpoint between the previous and future Mardi Gras. So we throw another Mardi Gras for the locals: a carnival march of enthusiastic citzenry who dance through the leafy lanes of the residential Riverbend neighborhood.

 

Essence Music Festival

Photo credit: Chris Granger via New Orleans CVB

The largest event celebrating African American music and culture in the country takes over New Orleans on 4th of July weekend. There's more than tunes (and food, natch) at the 'Party with a Purpose;' a respected roster of black intellectuals and community leaders is a cerebral accompaniment to an always impressive musical lineup.

 

Ponderosa Stomp

Photo credit: Edgar Mata

The stomp is a bit off the radar even for many New Orleanians, which is funny, as it is the most local of music festivals. Held in late September, Ponderosa Stomp celebrates roots music, which New Orleans has always incubated, in all its myriad forms: folk, blues, country, swamp jams and more.

 

Bonus: Festival International de Louisiane

Photo credit: Denny Culbert

Lafayette, about three hours west of New Orleans, hosts this free festival, the largest celebration of Francophone culture in the Western Hemisphere. 'Festival' is held on the last weekend of April, which is when Jazz Fest occurs – as a result, you'll either enjoy the comparatively smaller crowds in Lafayette, or you can make it a festival road trip and hit both Festival International and Jazz Fest in one week. Attendees are treated to Francophone music from around the world and a stunning selection of eats, much of the latter inspired by the cuisine of surrounding Cajun Country.

 

Do you think New Orleans is the festival capital of the world? Or should another destination own that title? Let us know!

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