If you've only heard one Mardi Gras song, it's probably "Iko Iko," the hit recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. An earlier version (titled "Jock-a-mo") by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford came out in 1953, and many artists, from Dr. John to the Grateful Dead to Cyndi Lauper, have covered it. It's a playful, taunting chant, that comes from the traditional call and response challenges of two battling tribes at a Mardi Gras parade. The chorus goes something like this:
Hey now! Hey now! Iko iko wan dey Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey Jock-a-mo fi na ney.
Everyone has recorded it a little differently, but no one who recorded it knew what it meant. Crawford had heard the phrases at parade battles, and the Dixie Cups said they had heard their grandmother sing it.
There are as many guesses about the meaning of this song as there are versions of it: Jock-a-mo means "brother John," or "jokester," or "Giacomo;" Jock-a-mo fin a ney means "kiss my ass," or "John is dead"; Iko means "I go," or "pay attention," or "gold," or "hiking around"; the words come from French, or Yoruba, or Italian...
Reporter Drew Hinshaw decided to ask some experts about the origin of the song after he noticed the similarity between the Iko refrain and a stirring call-and-response chant he heard at a parade in Ghana: "Iko Iko! Aayé!" In this 2009 article in the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat, he recounts how he showed the lyrics to a local linguistics professor who thought they definitely came from a West African language. Back in the US, a professor of Creole Studies thought it came from a mixture of Yoruba and French Creole, and proposed the following breakdown:
Enòn, Enòn! Code Language! Aiku, Aiku nde. God is watching. Jacouman Fi na Jacouman causes it ida-n-de We will be emancipated. Jacouman Fi na dé Jacouman urges it; we will wait.
Meanwhile, Wikipedia says some mysterious, unnamed "creole lingua specialists" endorse the following French-based Creole interpretation:
Ena! Ena! Hey now! Hey now! Akout, Akout an deye Listen, listen at the back Chaque amoor fi nou wa na né All the love made our king be born Chaque amoor fi na né All the love made our king be born
Another theory making the rounds of various folk music message boards is that the "jock-a-mo" part comes from a Native American language where "chokma finha" means "very good." This at least matches up with what Crawford said about his original 1953 recording: he sang "chock-a-mo," but it was misspelled on the record label as "jock-a-mo."
We will probably never be able to pin down the origin of the words or what they once meant. But it may well be that even from the very first chanting of the phrases, the Africans, Native Americans, French, and English that made up the great language/culture mélange of New Orleans all understood it in their own way. And still had a good old time anyway.