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Iko, Iko - the real words and meaning

Yanne 10 Feb 10 - 01:08 PM
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Subject: Iko, Iko - the real words and meaning
From: Yanne
Date: 10 Feb 10 - 01:08 PM

I've been reading the various threads in Iko, Iko with interest, especially as it's been going for nearly ten years now! Personally I never had much of a problem with the words of 'Iko, Iko' apart from a couple of blanks (due to fluent French plus great trips to the Creole Caribbean French islands and Cajun and Creole speaking Louisiana), but now I see that quite a lot of people are genuinely interested in the origins of the words. So I did some serious research (below) and I can tell you the words in Creole, with their French and English meanings.

The song "Iko, Iko" made its debut as "Jock-o-mo" in 1953. It was written by a 19 year old black musician named James Sugar Boy Crawford who copied down the ceremonial war chants of opposing Black Indian tribes who faced each other off during the Mardi Gras festivals in the strets of New Orleans.

Since 1965, when the Dixie Cups made it into a hit, the song has been known as "Iko, Iko".

The song's words are neither impenetrable nor gibberish, as some people seem to think. They are also neither old French nor Cajun French. They are Kreyol Lwizian (Louisiana Creole). The reason the song is sung with different words by Crawford, the Dixie Cups, The Grateful Dread and others is because none of these people speak Creole. And other British and American singers are in the same boat.

You need some history to understand the real words. First, there's a controversy you should know about. In a 2002 interview Crawford says he phonetically copied down two chants. One was "Iko, Iko" - the other was "Jockomo fee no wah na nay". Sugar Boy Crawford said he then amalgamated the two separate chants and put them to music - and a great song was born.

The only problem with this story is that the chant "Hey now! Hey now! Iko! Iko!" is entirely absent from Crawford's "Jock-o-mo" released in 1953. Why tell a journalist you copied down two chants and amalgamated them and then go to a recording studio and only sing one of the chants? You don't need to take my word for it. Go to www.deezer.com and type in 'Jockomo' in the search box and you'll hear Crawford's 1953 hit free of charge. There's no 'Iko! Iko!' in the lyrics.

The words "Iko, Iko" only appeared twelve years later, in 1965, when the Dixie Cups recorded it on the Redbird Records label. The girl band claimed that they didn't understand the words themselves (not speaking Creole) and learned them parrot-fashion from their grandmother.

A lawsuit lodged by Sugar Boy Crawford claiming that the Dixie Cups version of the song was based on his original Jock-o-mo 1953 version was settled out of court. In his 2002 interview with Offbeat.com Crawford said he considered that it was better to have 50% of something than 100% of nothing.

I think the 50% settlement was really due to the fact that Crawford wrote half the song and the Dixie Cups wrote the other half. The "Jockomo fee no wah na nay'' lyrics were indeed first introduced by Crawford in 1953, but the "'''Iko, Iko'''" part wasn't, because it was introduced by the Dixie Cups.

Leaving aside the legal aspects of the claim, it's fascinating to know that the Dixie Cups had learnt the words parrot-fashion from their grandmother. So someone other than Crawford was also writing down (or remembering) the Black Indian chants at Mardi Gras in New Orleans!

The Black Indian chants, even though they have words of French origin, have everything to do with Creole French, and nothing to do with Cajun French (which though it was also 'old French', adhered to French syntax and grammar). Louisiana Creole, though similar to French, has a syntax of its own – it's basically pidgin-French, with grammar that would make a Frenchman cringe and with words that are foreshortened and spoken with flat accents in quick, rapid-fire delivery. Louisiana Creole originated from French descendants of the formerly French colony of Louisiana settled by King Louis IV (till Thomas Jefferson bought it in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase). The language was that spoken by the slaves of the French colonists who copied it phonetically from their masters, so it's black French, and it was widely spoken by the New Orleans black population till English gradually took over as the main language.

It was short-form French - for instance an English equivalent would be "Me go bayou" for "I am going to the bayou."

Unfortunately, the Creole language was never written down (seriously) for 200 years except for a few poems or songs. Now, it's starting to be, but dictionaries are rare, and often incomplete. Some dictionaries that do however stand out are "Le Dictionnaire Créole" - "Le Dictionnaire Sioudi" - Louisiana Creole Vocabulary from angelfire - The Creole/English Wordlist" - the Verbix Creole conjugator – and perhaps the best is Webster's Creole/English dictionary.

Most of you in the threads seem to know a lot about the Black « Indian » tribes so I won't digress on them except to say there are now about 40 Indian tribes. It wasn't always so. "Jelly Roll" Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe), the American jazz pianist, bandleader and composer, was a Spyboy in his youth, and revealed that at that time there were only four or five Black Indian tribes in New Orleans.

A good description (not mine) of the confrontations is: "One by one, dancing in toe/heel fashion, each member of a tribe meets his counterpart. Spyboy first meets Spyboy. Flagboy meets Flagboy. Wildman, then first, second, and third chiefs, queen(s) and children - all meet and play out their traditional roles. And finally one Big Chief faces the other. Knees bent, arms outspread, swaying from foot to foot and turning in a circular motion, the chiefs slowly size up each other. This preening proves especially effective for showing off the costumes. Prestige for the tribe is garnered through the beauty and intricacy of the suits, role playing, and the strength of its presence in the community".

The chants are generally in the Call and Response fashion – in fact very much as the Dixie Cups sang the song.

The same description quoted above continued: "The tribe and its crowd of enthusiastic followers "respond", sometimes chanting a traditional chorus of words that have no common meaning and often derived from the early Creole language. These songs, although similar, are rarely sung in the same way by all the tribes although they lay claim to the same common repertoire. The tempo may be relaxed or fast depending upon the mood of the singers, but it remains consistent throughout the chant. Competition is nurtured in a creative climate that awards prestige and respect to the person who is able to out-sew, out-dress, and out-sing another Black Indian of equal rank from another tribe."

Prior to this, the confrontations were to settle old scores, and tribes would stab and shoot each other's members. The violence has transcended tnto the modern 'music and dress' face-off's, though the New Orleans Police Department is always much in evidence wherever a tribe marches and chants at Mardi Gras.

The chants are Creole in origin but are badly deformed by the Black "Indians". Sybil Kein writes: 'The chants of the Mardi Gras Black Indians have been diluted over the years by American black speech. A good example of Black Indian creole is in the chant or prayer that opens their Mardi Gras observance. They sing "Madi cu defio, en dans dey" which is a corruption of the old Creole song "M'allé couri dans déser" used in connection with Voodoo rituals and associated with the Calinda dance'' (Wilson, "Traditional Louisiana French Folk Music", pg 59; Mrs. Augustine Moore, interview with author, 1980).

"Iko, Iko" and "Jockomo" were two of these Black Indian chants.

==The phonetic words of the song Iko Iko==

The words as they are sung today are:
Hey now, Hey now
Iko, Iko, an day
Jockomo fee no wah na nay
Jockomo fee na nay''

Some singers deform the original lyrics – for example Dr. John signs "Hed now, Hed now" instead of "Hey now, Hey now," - which isn't Creole, Cajun, French, old French, Quebec French, or even English – it's pure artistic license. As you know, many singers covered Iko, Iko. You can hear all their different versions free of charge on deezer.com by typing in "Iko, Iko" into the search box.

Anyway, though musically richer, these newer versions consistently stray from the original. If the song is still being sung 500 years from now, one wonders what the words will have evolved to!

Let's start with the word "Jockomo".

Sugar Boy Crawford wasn't the only singer to use the word Chocomo (as he sang the word) or Jock-o-mo (as the record label misheard and entitled the song). The most oft-recorded Indian tribe, Big Chief Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, issued "In the Morning, Jockomo", the Krewe Renegades recorded "Jockomo Zydeco", Huey Piano Smith's song "Don't You Know Yocomo" can be heard on Deezer.com and Danny Baker's song released on King Zulu Records had lyrics of "Choco Me Fee ndo Hey".

Jocomo is basically a name – and it's the only contestable part of what I'm writing because its origin is uncertain, even in Creole.

I see from the long thread that many of you have different meanings for Jocomo.
- Giacomo (from the Italian)
- Junkamo
- Jester or Jokester (Dr. John said this on the sleeve of one of his albums)
- John Jolly (apparently a famous former Big Chief tribe leader)

I find it hard to accept that Jackomo is 'Jester' despite Dr. John's huge reputation. The French, the Cajuns and the Creoles would all refer to a jester as a "fou", or as a "buffon" (buffoon in English) as the court of Louis IV did. Even the Joker in a deck of playing cards isn't called a 'Joker' but a 'fou'. If further proof be needed, not one of the Creole dictionaries or lexicons I refer to above cite the word Jockomo for 'jester'.

I don't think it can be Junkamo either (just doesn't sound right), nor John Jolly - wasn't he a genuine Cherokee Indian who lived in Houston, not a Black Indian from New Orleans? In fact, I've read letters between John Jolly and Sam Houston in 1837, written when Houston was the beginnings of a township when John Jolly was seeking protection of Native American rights and traditions.

I can see three possible alternatives. That Jocomo or Jackomo was a name is obvious, but it may have been a derived name.

It may have been Jacques, to which 'mot' was added affectionately meaning "Small Jack", or "Dear Jack" or "Our dear little Jack" – much as Pierrot is used for Pierre, and Jeannot for Jean.

Or it could be 'Birdman' – the 'Jaco' is Creole for a perroquet (parrot) and some of the Black Indian costumes are of men completely covered in feathers with a pseudo beak – le Jaco – easily turned into Jaccomo.

Or it could have been a monkey suit, from Jaquot (a monkey) but this is less likely because Jacquot is Creole for monkey in other Creole speaking parts of the world rather than in Louisiana.

Anyway, I hope we can all agree that Jocomo, whatever its origins, was a NAME.

Now we come to the critical lines:

Hey now! Hey now!
Iko, Iko an day
Jockomo fee no wah na nay
Jockomo fee na nay

The first two lines were originated by The Dixie Cups in 1965, the second two were initiated by Sugar Boy Crawford in 1953. These are genuine French Creole-origin sentences which were adapted in the Black Indian chant and which paid scant respect to the rules of French grammar. In Creole they are:

Ena! Ena!
Akout, Akout an deye
Jocomo fi nou wa na né
Jockomo fi na né

In English, this equates to:

Hey now! Hey now!
Listen, listen at the back
Jocomo made our king be born
Jocomo made it happen.

Now we come to the part that deserves your closest attention – proving the above.

Ena! Ena! This is a coded 'call' – the chants were call and response songs – much as The Dixie Cups sang it. 'E' is 'and' (the French and Cajuns would have said 'Et', but Creole shortens everything), and 'na' is 'to have', 'I have', 'So', 'Then' etc. It would equate to something like "Now then!" But it's a coded call – it could start anyway you like to get a chant going.

"Iko" (first introduced by The Dixie Cups) is "Akout" in Creole, for the French "Ecoute!" or the English "Listen!". The fact that the French Creole "Akout!" (and sometimes just "koute") was pronounced as "Iko!" was due to how the Black Indians deformed or adapted the Creole word to suit their timing, metre or accent, softening and shortening the initial "A" and typically leaving off the hard "t" at the end of the word. So it ended up being sung as "Akou!" which in a noisy Indian face-off in a New Orleans street at Mardi Gras would phonetically come across as "Iko".

"An day" as written down by Crawford was in Creole "an deye". The word "an" is like the French 'en' (in) but accented in the Creole accent. In Creole it has lots of meanings - 'at', 'in' etc (See Webster's), and "deye" means 'after', behind' 'rear'. The procession of an Indian tribe in the streets at Mardi Gras is several hundred yards long and can extend over several city blocks. In front you have the ceremonially dressed Indians (Spyboy, Flagboy, 2d, 3rd, 4th Chiefs, the Queen, the Wildmen and so on) and they're followed by the rest of the voluminous tribe, not as fantastically garbed as the front runners. That's why the Big Chief has to be everywhere – he has to keep his entire Tribe in order and together. So "Akout, akout an deye" – Listen! Listen at the rear" is plausibly what the gang at the front leading the procession would be chanting to their followers behind them as the whole tribe marched down the street.

Next we have Crawford's "Jocomo fee no wah na nay". In Creole this is "Jocomo fi nou wa na né" – in English "Jocomo made our King to be born" (literally), but figuratively it would mean "Jocomo (Birdman I think) gave life to our king". Perhaps that particular King was dressed as a Bird.

Let's look at the individual words of that sentence - Jocomo fi nou wa na né .

Crawford's "fee" is "fi" in Creole, which is the third person past tense of the verb "faire" (to do, to make to cause etc). So "Jacquemot fi" would be "Jacquemot made" (or did, or prepared, or constructed or caused). Modern French has no word such as "fi". For "fi" the French say "fit" (made). In addition, modern French speakers rarely use "fit". Thus, to say "Jacquemot made" - they would say "Jacquemot a fait" – not "Jacquemot fit" (even though it is grammatically correct) - because it is 'old French'. However, 'old French' is very prevalent in the Creole language. It was the only French the slaves heard from their French masters back in the 1600's when New Orleans was built as a sea port/fort and from then on till the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Verbix Conjugator gives the use of "fi" for all cases, singular and plural:

I made - mo fi
Thou made - to fi
He or she made - li fi
We made - nou fi
You made - vou fi
They made - yè fi

But Sugar Boy Crawford wasn't a Creole speaker. He was a young man listening to Black Indians slogging it out verbally at Mardi Gras. It's highly likely that when he heard the Indians chanting "Jacomo fi..." he would, quite naturally, have phonetically written it as "Chocomo fee..."

Crawford's "no" is not no.
The lyrics "Jockomo fee '''no'' are really Jackomo fi "nou". The "no" used in the Crawford version is not a negative. It's "nou" the Creole word for "our", "us" or "we" (Webster's). For Crawford the distinction must have been hard to pick up. He wrote down what he heard as best he could, equating the chanted 'nou' to the English word 'no' which must have popped into his mind as he was scribbling down the chant. Perhaps it was even due to the way the 'warring' Indians pronounced the word, cutting short the ending as they did for Akout..

The words "wah na nay"
As an entire set of three words, "wah na nay" does not exist in either traditional old French, modern French, or Cajun French. In phonetic Creole French however, it does exist. It's "wa" (in French Roi, in Englsh King) – "nan" (into) – "né" (born). The Creoles changed the French pronunciation of the word King (Roi) to the simpler and flatter "Wa'' leaving off the initial 'r' sound (you'll find 'wa' given as the Creole for 'Roi' in Creole/English Wordlist mentioned above). The word "Nan" is exclusively peculiar to Creole. You can check this in the Creole/English Wordlist which shows several meanings of "nan", which are 'into' 'in', 'to', 'on'.
And the word "Né" (born) is the same in both Creole and French, the past participle of the verb "naitre" (to be born) pronounced 'nay' just as Sugar Boy Crawford wrote it.

So the whole line: "Jockomo fee no wah na nay" is:"Jacquemot fi nou wa nan né" meaning "Jacquemot made our King into born" (in English: Jacquemot gave life to our King) and "Jockomo fee na nay" is: "Jacquemot fi nan né" meaning "Jacquemot made into born". In this sense it means "Jocomo made it happen".

It's the kind of pidgin-French that would make French speakers cringe, but Creole grammar, although similar, doesn't have the same syntax as classic French grammar.

THE WHOLE VERSE

As sung by Sugar Boy Crawford and the Dixie Cups:
Hey now! Hey now!
Iko! Iko! an day!
Jockomo fee no wah na nay
Jockomo fee na nay


In the original Creole French would be:
Ena! Ena!
Akout! Akout an dèyè!
Jacomo fi nou wa nan né
Jacomo fi nan né


And in English would be:
Hey now! Hey now! (or Hed Now!' if you're Dr. John)
Listen! Listen! at the rear!
Jacomo gave life to our King
Jacomo made it happen

As to the rest of the verses "My Flagboy, Sitting by the fire (fiyo by Dr. John) or My Marraine, or "gonna fix your chicken wire (wiyo by Dr John) etc etc, aren't Creole in origin. The Black Indians originally never sang those English language verses – they just sang the chant above. The English verses were written for the recording studios by the various people who have made hits with this song, each one adding his or her own verses. Crawford's were the original verses in English, and he slipped in the chants 'Jocomo fee nah nay" to finish off each verse and his successors improved and added to the verses.

It's never easy to decipher the true origins of a very old chant, especially as it wasn't written down but passed from generation to generation, but whatever the truth – it's still a great song!

Do write and let me know if this helped.

P.S. I'm also adding this to the other related threads referring to Jocomo.
I deleted multiple copies of your message, which although helpful and enjoyable, is not so nice when spammed. Your message was left in the (Origins) Jacomo finane? What does that mean? thread. --Mod


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