The music of New Orleans band Cha Wa is a party in itself, a joyful collision of brass band music, funk, soul, and Mardi Gras Indian music and culture. The group is led by singer J'Wan Boudreaux and drummer Joe Gelini, both of whom learned from the preeminent musician Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Golden Eagles and J'Wan's grandfather. Mardi Gras Indians participate in parades, ceremonies, and other events in honor of their ancestors, who first took part in Mardi Gras festivities as a means of self-expression and celebration.
We're basically bringing a brass band and Mardi Gras Indian parade to the stage," Gelini says, "and we're celebrating all things New Orleans." According to Gelini, there are plenty of New Orleans-based musicians who have been inspired by Mardi Gras Indian music, with its blend of African and Indigenous American elements: Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, The Neville Brothers, Big Freedia, Trombone Shorty, and the late Dr. John, among them. But the musicians of Cha Wa are among the few who are actively bringing Mardi Gras Indian culture with them on tour.
We spoke to Joe Gelini about the historical roots of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, and how it informs the musical identity of Cha Wa. An edited transcript follows.
How did you get involved with Monk Boudreaux and the tradition of Mardi Gras Indian music?
Joe Gelini: I was really fascinated with the Mardi Gras Indians, I really just tried to get as prepared as I could by going back and learning all the old recordings and really kind of study the music from The Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Monk has some great old recordings of him just doing the a cappella chants with the Mardi Gras Indians. He has a whole record from the H&R Bar.
And I just really fell in love with the Indians first, but then I went back and I really tried to educate myself. I did a really deep dive into it. I was just able to start playing drums in Monk's band, and eventually became the musical director of the band.
It seems like Cha Wa's socially-conscious music is a continuation of what's been going on in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition for years.
The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is unique to New Orleans. And in New Orleans during slavery, slaves that escaped would be protected by the Native Americans, because they would take them in and they would have these Maroon communities where they would just sort of hide in plain sight, but they would also intermarry. So there's an actual bloodline that goes all the way back to that. And it really establishes the fact that those two different cultures and races intermarried and they protected each other, because there was definitely a shared oppression that they had together.
With Mardi Gras Indian music, it seems that the role that chant and call-and-response have in the music is quite significant. How does that show up in Cha Wa's music?
Basically, the way that I would describe it is that we're all very much versed in the Mardi Gras Indian call-and-response folk music; the music that is traditionally done in the streets and is a cappella or acoustic. It's without accompaniment from any brass band or any electrical instruments. No guitar, no organ, nothing like that.
We take the approach of modernizing that style of music, with the question-and-answer, but doing it in a more contemporary way that our generation would voice it. In other words, we take the question-and-answer elements, but we put it into a more contemporary song form.