Song of the Week: Iko Iko

Song of the Week

But really, what does “Iko Iko” mean? NOBODY KNOWS.

It seems incredible that this song that is so recognizable to generations of Americans – has no definitive meaning. If you Google “Iko Iko” or “Aiko Aiko” or “Jockomo” or “Jock-A-Mo” (All different titles for the same song) you’ll find many fascinating articles full of transliterations of a language variably described as Native American, or West African, or French Creole. Or all of the above.

Everyone does agree that this song is from New Orleans and is about Mardi Gras. It’s traditionally sung by parade krewes, “battling” each-other in celebration with song, dance, and incredible costumes. What’s a krewe, you ask? Parade krewes are the social organizations that put on specific parades and/or balls for a given season. The oldest krewe in New Orleans dates back to 1856, and there are currently 55 krewes participating in the 2020 Mardi Gras celebrations!

Krewe of Zulu
Krewe of Zulu in 2017. Louis Armstrong once reigned as the King of the Zulu Krewe in 1949!

Unlike the mysterious chorus of “Iko Iko,” the verses are in English and contain playful jabs sung back and forth between the battling krewes. Perhaps the reason it’s common for these battling groups to come together and sing the chorus in unison is because no one knows what it means!

When Iko Iko starts in a Mardi Gras parade, everyone joins in. The whole street sings with the call-and-response verses, and dances, and drums on anything that’s available. It’s an inclusive party and no one is allowed to stand still with their mouth closed! This of course translates perfectly to Music Class where we always want all grown-ups and kids to be singing and dancing and moving to the music.

The song has been recorded so many times and with so many different variations, we thought you might enjoy watching some of the hits with the whole fam! Please sing along and grab your favorite sticks/spoons/plastic sippy cups to jam with!

The Dixie Cups, 1965
Even though they were not the first to record the song (It was first recorded by Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters in 1953 under the title “Jock-A-Mo”) The Dixie Cups popularized the song with their international hit single.
(Check out how they’re playing drumsticks like we do in Music Class!)

Dr. John, 1995

Dr. John recorded his single of the song in 1972, but this video is from a performance in 1995. 
(I love this especially groovy / jazzy version; and check out all the Mardi Gras purple and green around the stage!)

Grateful Dead, 1989

Grateful Dead first performed the song in 1977, and it became a regular feature of their tours in the 80s and 90s. This video is from 1989.
(Did you know the Grateful Dead played this song? I sure didn’t!)

The Belle Stars, as featured in the movie Rain Man, 1989
(Who doesn’t love this movie?)

Amy Holland, as featured in the movie K-9, 1990

Jimmy Fallon, Sia, Natalie Portman and The Roots, 2016
(Case in point that this song is still going strong. Fallon’s music videos are always an excellent example of using kitchen instruments and other random things found around the house to make music. Try this at home!!)

Which version is your personal fave?

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