They’re the second line New Orleans street parade leaders, their ornately feathered finery lighting up the streets during Mardi Gras as they strut their stuff and sing praises to their bad-to-the-bone-ness. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition is a thank you to the Native Americans in Louisiana who befriended and sheltered runaway slaves. On Mardi Gras day, members of the Crescent City African American community mask up, donning homemade suits of beads and feathers that have often taken them all year to construct, and take to the streets in mock battles with other tribes. The battles used to be bloody affairs, but are symbolic now, with insults and taunts flung around in high spirits with a lot of flashy showmanship.
Building on chants backed with a percussive backbeat, some tribes mounted full bands and took to the studio, and to the road, to spread the word. The Golden Eagles with Monk Boudreaux, the Wild Magnolias with big chief Bo Dollis, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, led by George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry, all strutted their stuff to music, with the Wild Tchoupitoulas getting The Meters to back them in the studio.
The band Cha Wa is a distillation of that culture, started, ironically, by an outsider, drummer Joe Gelini, a Berklee College of Music graduate. He met Monk Boudreaux while attending practices for the Mardi Gras outings, then befriended Monk’s grandson, J’Wan, as well as Monk’s son, Joseph Jr. J’Wan and Joseph Jr. became the lead singers for Cha Wa, with Joseph later taking over as frontman.
What comes out is a mix of War, The Meters, and the Rebirth Brass Band, with Joseph Boudreaux Jr. out in front in full regalia, clad in a feathered and beaded suit he says weighs as much as he does. But the content is not fluff, but rather feather-ruffling commentary. Title track, “My People” celebrates the strength and tenacity of New Orleans dwellers: “Most people know what it takes to survive / but my people do it and thrive,” proclaims trumpeter/vocalist Aurélien Barnes.
“Wildman” is in the spirit of the old-school tribal elders, a warning to other tribes who might try to outshine or outstrut their efforts on Mardi Gras: “Don’t get too close cause he might snatch your soul / He got horns on his head and masking on his back / a wildman coming an’ he ready to attack.”
The band chunks in a bigtime change-up with “Love In Your Heart,” a soulful sit-in by Anjelika Jelly Joseph that sounds like it crept out of a HI Records session in Memphis in the ’70s. The band pays homage to their tribal roots on “Shallow Water,” with a sound more like what you’ll hear in the streets, a primal percussive chant fit for flaunting your feathers and struttin’ your stuff, Mardi Gras Indian-style.
Cha Wa’s third outing opens new vistas for the band, offering up a taste of street strut and funky, percussive soul, a proclamation of survival against all odds while looking good doing it.