Visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras and you’re bound to run into the lively funk and elaborate costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians, but insiders know that at the helm is Cha Wa, a funk-laced brass outfit that combines the history of NOLA’s street music with a modern, infectious twist. Cha Wa celebrates the Mardi Gras Indians’ tradition that began when African-American men first marched in Native American dress during Mardi Gras in the late 1800s. It’s now shared on a national level through inspired performances and musical acts such as Cha Wa, who are making their Brooklyn Bowl debut with Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Thursday, February 28.
We’re honored to sit down with Cha Wa’s frontman, J’Wan Boudreaux, and drummer Joe Gelini to talk all things New Orleans, their intricate Mardi Gras Indian suits, and what its like to take their culturally rich ethos on the road in this exclusive interview.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Cha Wa! We were really excited to see that you were nominated for a Grammy recently. What was the experience like for the band?
Joe Gelini: It was definitely surreal! We actually got invited to perform at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles with some of the other Louisiana and Mississippi nominees that weekend. Being able to attend the Grammys and walk down the Red Carpet representing New Orleans was a real honor.
That sounds amazing. Let’s talk about your iconic dress. Do you have a favorite Mardi Gras Indian suit that you’ve made?
J’Wan Boudreaux: My favorite suit and most elaborate suit was from Mardi Gras 2017 when I came out masking in green feathers.
That one is truly sensational and eye-catching. So incredible that you make them yourself! What kind of preparation other than sewing your dress does it take for Mardi Gras?
J’wan: Mardi Gras Indian practice is a way to prepare weekly for the singing, call and response, chanting and drumming on Mardi Gras Day. You need to prepare your body and mind to be able to parade all day on Mardi Gras.
That’s definitely a lot to prepare for, which brings us to our next question. Do you feel different performing with the suits on versus off?
J’wan: Yes of course. It doesn’t have the same connection without the suit. Once you put on the suit it’s spiritual. If I do not have the suit on it’s like I have to be someone I’m not.
Goes without saying that the music of Cha Wa is filled with spirit. Is it that spiritual aspect what attracts you to NOLA’s culture?
J’wan: Music is built into the cultural fabric of New Orleans. We have second lines on Sunday, Mardi Gras Parades and Festival season that takes over the city. Music is the air that New Orleans breathes.
Amen to that. Growing up in that kind of musical environment, how has the city’s musical history affected your playing and performance?
Joe: Although New Orleans is the cradle of American music it also has a very disturbing history that haunts its citizens. Unfortunately one of the biggest drivers of its music and culture is the devastation brought by years of oppression from events like being the biggest transatlantic slave port, the segregated musicians and audiences from the Jim Crow era, and the cultural and economic displacement from Hurricane Katrina. Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid, and pleasure clubs that drive brass band street culture are by definition organizations that push back from the arms of genocide, racism, and gentrification.
The music of New Orleans really does tell the city’s story and it’s one we can all afford to pay attention to. When you play in other parts of the country, how do your shows outside of New Orleans compare? What’s your experience like playing in New York?
Joe: New Orleans is home and will always be our favorite place to play. That being said there is an incredible kinetic energy that New York City possesses unlike any other that we try to tap into whenever we get the opportunity to play here.
We’re looking forward to hearing the new music off of “Spyboy” live. Is playing the music onstage very different than the recording process?
Joe: It took a tremendous amount of preparation in the rehearsal room during pre-production to keep the vibe live but the arrangements right. Once we are on stage it’s just a celebration of the music we created together.
There’s a lot of history in that music you’ve made together. Considering J’Wan grew up singing alongside his grandfather Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, how did it feel to have him feature on Spyboy?
Joe: If you get the opportunity to make music with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, you are going to the source, the alpha, the beginning. It can’t help feel nostalgic, especially for us! He is a healer and a leader. He can evoke a spirit that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
That must have been extremely special! We hope to have that same reaction at your upcoming show with Dirty Dozen Brass band at our Mardi Gras celebration on February 28! Have you played with them before?
Joe: They are our heroes and we grew up listening to them. They are responsible for bringing New Orleans Brass Band music to the world. It’s an honor to share the stage with them!
And it’s an honor to be able to host you for what we can expect to be another amazing night of New Orleans music! What can readers expect to experience at the show?
Joe: I think you will get a true representation of the power of New Orleans Street music and culture at the show. Cha Wa!
Thank you so much for chatting with us!
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