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"Iko Iko" is a much-covered New Orleans song that tells of a parade collision between two "tribes" of Mardi Gras Indians and the traditional confrontation. The song, under the original title "Jock-A-Mo", was written in 1953 by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford in New Orleans. The story tells of a "spy boy" (i.e. a lookout for one band of Indians) encountering the "flag boy" or guidon carrier for another "tribe". He threatens to "set the flag on fire".
Crawford set phrases chanted by Mardi Gras Indians to music for the song. Crawford himself states that he has no idea what the words mean, and that he originally sang the phrase "Chock-a-mo", but the title was misheard by Chess Records and Checker Records president Leonard Chess, who misspelled it as "Jock-a-mo" for the record's release.
"Jock-a-mo" was the original version of the song "Iko Iko" recorded by The Dixie Cups in 1965. Their version was the result of an unplanned jam in a New York City recording studio where they began an impromptu version of "Iko Iko", accompanying themselves with drumsticks on an aluminum chair, a studio ashtray and a Coke bottle.
The Dixie Cups, who had learned "Iko, Iko" from hearing their grandmother sing it, also knew little about the origin of the song and so the original authorship credit went to the members, Barbara Ann Hawkins, her sister Rosa Lee Hawkins, and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson.
After the Dixie Cups version of the "Iko Iko" was released in 1965, they and their record label, Red Bird Records, were sued by James Crawford, who claimed that "Iko Iko" was the same as his composition "Jock-a-mo". Although The Dixie Cups denied that the two compositions were similar, the lawsuit resulted in a settlement in 1967 with Crawford making no claim to authorship or ownership of "Iko Iko", but being credited 25% for public performances, such as on radio, of "Iko Iko" in the United States. Even though a back-to-back listening of the two recordings clearly demonstrates that "Iko Iko" was practically the same song as Crawford's "Jock-a-mo", Crawford's rationale for the settlement was motivated by years of legal battles with no royalties. In the end, he stated, "I don’t even know if I really am getting my just dues. I just figure 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing."
In the 1990s, the Dixie Cups became aware that another group of people were claiming authorship of "Iko Iko". Their ex-manager Joe Jones and his family filed a copyright registration in 1991, alleging that they wrote the song in 1963. Joe Jones successfully licensed "Iko Iko" outside of North America. The Dixie Cups filed a lawsuit against Joe Jones. The trial took place in New Orleans and the Dixie Cups were represented by well-known music attorney Oren Warshavsky before Senior Federal Judge Peter Beer.
The jury returned a unanimous verdict on March 6, 2002, affirming that the Dixie Cups were the only writers of "Iko Iko" and granting them more money than they were seeking. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury verdict and sanctioned Joe Jones.
Rolf Harris in 1965 recorded a cover version with slightly altered words, removing references to "flag boys" and other regionally specific lyrics, although much of the creole patois remained as a sort of nonsense scat. This version made the song popular in England and Australia in the 1960s.
Two covers of the song were released as singles in the UK in the same week in 1982: one by singer Natasha England, and one by all-female band The Belle Stars. Natasha England's rendition significantly outsold The Belle Stars', reaching the top 10 in 1982. It was produced by Tom Newman ("Tubular Bells").
The Belle Stars version gained new life when it was included in the 1988 film Rain Man. It was then released as a single in the United States, where it would peak at 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1989. It was later included in the films Knockin' on Heaven's Door and The Hangover.
The song is regularly performed by artists from New Orleans such as the Neville Brothers (who have recorded it in a medley with the melodically-related Mardi Gras song "Brother John" as "Brother John/Iko Iko"), Larry Williams, Dr. John, The Radiators, Willy DeVille, Buckwheat Zydeco, Irma Thomas and Zachary Richard, and can often be heard on the streets and in the bars of New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras.
It has been also been covered by Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead (who made "Iko Iko" a staple in their live shows from 1977 onward), Cowboy Mouth, Warren Zevon, Long John Baldry, Dave Matthews & Friends, The Ordinary Boys, Glass Candy, and Sharon, Lois & Bram, among others. In 1982 both the Belle Stars and solo singer Natasha released versions of the song in the UK at the same time. The version by Natasha reached the UK top ten. Amy Holland covered the song on the soundtrack of the film K-9, Aaron Carter covered the song for 2000's The Little Vampire soundtrack and filmed a music video for it. The Dixie Cups performed the song on the soundtrack of the film The Skeleton Key. Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts, Britta Phillips and Trini Alvarado perform the song in the 1988 film Satisfaction. A later version by Zap Mama, with rewritten lyrics, was featured in the opening sequences of the film Mission: Impossible II.
Oddly, the Larry Williams version, included on the Specialty Records Larry Williams CD released in 1989, although it was recorded on April 26, 1957, still credits the song as being written by "Hawkins, Hawkins and Johnson" though the Dixie Cups did not record it for another 8 years.
The song was written and recorded back in the early 1950s by a New Orleans singer named James Crawford who worked under the name of Sugar Boy & the Cane Cutters. It was recorded in the 1960s by the Dixie Cups for Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller's Red Bird Records, but the format we're following here is Sugar Boy's original. Also in the group were Professor Longhair on piano, Jake Myles, Big Boy Myles, Irv Bannister on guitar, and Eugene 'Bones' Jones on drums. The group was also known as the Chipaka Shaweez. The song was originally called 'Jockamo,' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockamo means 'jester' in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second line' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.
Interviewer: How did you construct 'Jock-A-Mo?'
Crawford: It came from two Indian chants that I put music to. “Iko Iko” was like a victory chant that the Indians would shout. “Jock-A-Mo” was a chant that was called when the Indians went into battle. I just put them together and made a song out of them. Really it was just like "Lawdy Miss Clawdy". That was a phrase everybody in New Orleans used. Lloyd Price just added music to it and it became a hit. I was just trying to write a catchy song....
Interviewer: Listeners wonder what 'Jock-A-Mo' means. Some music scholars say it translates in Mardi Gras Indian lingo as 'Kiss my ass,' and I’ve read where some think 'Jock-A-Mo' was a court jester. What does it mean?
Crawford: I really don't know. (laughs)
Linguists and historians have proposed a variety of origins for the seemingly nonsensical chorus, suggesting that the words may come from a melange of cultures.
According to linguist Geoffrey D. Kimball, the lyrics of the song are derived in part from Mobilian Jargon, an extinct Native American trade language consisting mostly of Choctaw and Chickasaw words and once used by Southeastern Indians, African Americans, and European settlers and their descendants in the Gulf Coast Region. In Mobilian Jargon, čokəma fehna (interpreted as "jockomo feeno") was a commonly used phrase, meaning "very good".
A translation of Louisiana Creole French interprets the words of the entire chorus as;
Ena! Ena!Chaque amour fi na né
Akout, akout, an déyè
Chaque amour fi nou wa na né
In English, this equates to:
Hey now! Hey now!All our love made it happen.
Listen, listen at the back
All our love made our king be born
Another possible translation interprets the third and fourth lines as:
Chokma finha an dan déyèChokma finha ane.
From Chickasaw words "chokma" ("it's good") and "finha" ("very"), the Creole "an dan déyè" from the French Creole "an dans déyè" ("at the back"), and the Creole "ane" from the French "année" ("year").
In English, this equates to:
It's very good at the rearIt's (a) very good year.
In a 2009 Offbeat article, however, the Ghanaian social linguist Dr. Evershed Amuzu said the chorus was "definitely West African", reflecting West African tonal patterns. The article also notes that the phrase ayeko—often doubled as ayeko, ayeko—is a popular chant meaning "well done, or congratulations" among the Akan and Ewe people in modern-day Togo, Ghana, and Benin. Both groups were heavily traded during the slave trade, often to Haiti, which served as a way station for Louisiana. Ewes in particular are credited with bringing West African cultural influences like West African Vodun rites from West Africa to Haiti and on to New Orleans.
Musicologist Ned Sublette has backed the idea that the chorus might have roots in Haitian slave culture, considering that the rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians are nearly indistinguishable from the Haitian Kata rhythm. Yaquimo, he has also noted, was a common name among Taino people, who inhabited Haiti in the early years of the slave trade. "Jakamo Fi Na Ye" is also, whether coincidentally or not, the phrase "The black cat is here" in Bambara, a West African Mandingo language.
In a 1991 lecture to the New Orleans Social Science History Association, Dr. Sybil Kein proposed the following translation from Yoruba and Creole:
Code language!Jacouman urges it; we will wait.
God is watching
Jacouman causes it; we will be emancipated
Voodoo practitioners would recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. The practitioner, the horse, waves a flag representing a certain god to literally flag down that god into himself or herself. Setting a flag on fire is a way of cursing someone. The song also mentions a man dressed in green who either has a change in personality or is in some way not what he seems to be. That would be recognized in Voodoo as a person being possessed by a spirit from the peaceful Rada realm who has a preference for green clothes and has love magic or fertility as their tell-tale characteristics. The man in the song who is dressed in red, and who is being sent after someone to kill them, would likely be a person possessed by a spirit from the vengeful Petwo realm who has a preference for red clothing and who has revenge or some other destructive quality among their characteristics. The relationship of the song to voodoo practices is celebrated in the movie The Skeleton Key, whose plot revolves around the practice of Hoodoo (folk magic).