When a Mardi Gras Indian striding down a New Orleans street yells, “Cha wa!” he’s warning nearby Mardi Gras Indian gangs, “We’re comin’ for ya!” It stands as a signal of his tribe’s arrival on a block or in a community. For the Cha Wa band, co-led by vocalist J’Wan Boudreaux, the grandson of the Golden Eagles’ noted Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, and drummer/percussionist Joe Gelini, it’s a declaration of its serious intent to carry on as well as revisit the rich street cultures of the Black Indians and brass bands that flourish here. As heard on its latest release, Spyboy, which features personnel from both traditions, Cha Wa creates a sound that successfully mashes up Mardi Gras Indian–based esthetics with brassy horns direct from a second line parade.
“It’s one big culture,” J’Wan declares, adding that there are guys who mask Indian and also play in brass bands. “On Super Sunday you have both—the second line [organizations] and Indians in one parade.”
“I think it’s a connection with the drums—the rhythms,” he continues. “Sometimes you’ll hear the beat that the bass drum and the snare drum play with the brass bands and you hear it in Indians too. And they sing Indian songs like ‘Shoo Fly,’ ‘Li’l Liza Jane’ and ‘Shallow Water.’ They took some of the songs from the Indian culture and made them into brass band songs.”
At age 20, J’Wan boasts an incredibly long history of masking Indian, having put on his first suit at age two as a spyboy with the Golden Eagles, led by his grandfather Monk Boudreaux. His mother, Wynoka Boudreaux, who in recent years became Monk’s Big Queen, helped him build his suits until about the time he reached his teens. “There is no greater pleasure than putting on a freshly done suit on Mardi Gras Day,” J’Wan declares with deep sincerity that typifies this thoughtful young man.
J’Wan is the lead vocalist on the new album though during many years with the Golden Eagles he simply observed his grandfather’s vocal and storytelling talents and the contributions made by other members of the gang.
“I wasn’t always a singer,” he admits. “I was watching everybody else sing and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’ When I started sewing I guess that’s when I started really singing. Eventually, my voice started developing and I started doing it, sometimes back by the drums and singing the response part then in the lead.”
“I went to one of J’Wan’s gigs and he shocked me—I didn’t know he could sing like that,” says Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who is a very special guest on Spyboy. He and his grandson are heard together on two cuts on the new album, the provocatively intense “Visible Means of Support,” on which Monk forcefully tells of when he was a teenager and he would be sent to jail for not having proof of employment even though he worked from the time he was 14. The policemen’s words, “If you don’t pay the fine, you must do the time,” ring throughout his commentary while J’Wan sings the chorus. On the prayerful “Indian Red,” which opens dirge-like and includes Nigel Hall on keyboards, Monk and J’Wan trade off on carrying the lead vocals.
“This is the first time I’ve ever recorded with him so this was a whole different experience,” J’Wan says. “He was well experienced on recording and I was just getting the feel of it. When he came, he just laid down his part. He did what he had to do and left. He didn’t hang around too much or listen to it or nothin’.”
“Monk is a one-track wonder,” agrees Gelini, who has also paid his dues in the Mardi Gras culture playing drums both on and off the street backing Big Chief Monk and the Golden Eagles. “It was amazing to be in the room when Monk and J’Wan got to do “Indian Red” together. That really felt like a special moment watching them trade verses and then sing together and watching Monk and seeing how proud he was. It was an amazing experience to be witnessing the next generation and culture progressing.”
Gelini, 40, the elder and founder of Cha Wa, grew up on the east coast and got to know New Orleans through his father’s love of the city and its music. “My dad was a huge influence on me and helped me discover New Orleans,” says Gelini, adding that his father would talk about New Orleans when he returned from business trips here. “When I was growing up, he used to tell me about this place called Tipitina’s. He exposed me to the Neville Brothers and Dr. John and a lot of the music that I listen to now like Louis Armstrong and traditional jazz. He brought me down here when I was 18 and I came back every year after that for Jazz Fest.”
One time in particular that Gelini remembers is when the plan was to meet his dad in the city. His father’s instructions were quite exact: “When you get off the plane, take a cab and tell them to take you to a place called Snug Harbor and I’ll be there.”
Gelini moved to New Orleans immediately after graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and jumped into the music scene. He recalls his first encounter with the Mardi Gras Indians at Tipitina’s where the Wild Magnolias with Big Chief Bo Dollis and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux were performing.
“I was just blown away by the whole thing,” he remembers with the excitement of the experience still in his voice. “It was sort of like I had found what I was searching for. It was really mind expanding. In listening to the Wild Magnolias, I heard all of the influences that I had listened to in the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and the Meters. It was an ‘a ha’ moment—oh, it comes from this. I made that connection.”
As it often goes in New Orleans, Gelini hooked up with musicians as he began working around town and, fortuitously, he did some subbing for artists who were managed by Reuben Williams. Williams, a vocalist who managed and continues to manage Monk, also led a reggae band called the Uppressors and Gelini started playing drums with the group. On occasion, Monk would sit in on some of the Uppressors’ gigs and thus, Gelini, who was already intrigued by the Black Indians, got to meet Monk, one of the most respected chiefs in the Indian Nation.
“I started going to his house and going with him on Mardi Gras,” Gelini recalls. “He told me to go check out Geechie [noted bass drummer Norwood Johnson, who is a guest on Spyboy] at the Handa Wanda bar. That’s when I got into doing the street stuff because I felt I needed to understand that to really make the connection of how it developed into the funk rhythm section with Willie Tee and the Gaturs backing the Wild Magnolias [as heard on the 1970 single ‘Handa Wanda.’] I always say you can’t really do the modern funk stuff if you don’t understand the street stuff. Then I got a chance to play with the Wild Magnolias when Monk and Bo [Big Chief Bo Dollis Sr.] got back together.”
“Joe drifted way into it,” says Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of Gelini’s entrance into the music and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians. “Drummers they can play what they teach you at school but when you get up there with the Indians that’s a different story. That’s got to come from the heart. He had to learn the street music first before he could play it on stage.”
In 2010, Gelini formed what he calls the “first gathering” of Cha Wa, an ensemble that has gone through a number of personnel changes. Only he and J’Wan remain in the lineup heard on the band’s first album, 2016’s Funk ‘N’ Feathers.
“It started out because I selfishly was so infatuated with the music I wanted to play it more,” Gelini explains on putting the group together. “We would only play with Monk [and the Golden Eagles] a handful of times a year. I started it [Cha Wa] with J’Wan’s uncle, Eric Boudreaux, his nickname is Yedi, and he was the singer and Colin Lake was the first guitar player. And then Honey Bannister [Creole Wild West gang flag Irving Bannister] started singing with us for a while.” Gelini goes on to add that after J’Wan graduated from high school, he and Bannister would both sing lead parts.
One of the contributing factors in Cha Wa’s change of instrumentation and thus sound was the sudden loss of keyboardist Stephen Malinowski, who passed away in June of 2016. “That really rocked our world and it also precipitated the change from playing with like a funk rhythm section to a brass band rhythm section,” Gelini explains. “I thought that was the most representative of where J’Wan was coming from. He second lines with the Young Men Olympian [Benevolent Association] so he’s involved with the second line community too. We wanted that to be represented in our voices more.”
“I started off-and-on with the Young Men Olympian (YMO) before Katrina and I’ve just been back with them for two or three years,” J’Wan offers. “I’m with the fifth division—the Untouchables with Norman Dixon Jr. and the TBC Brass Band.”
Likewise, Monk was also a member of YMO parading in the fifth division, then called the Big Jumpers. He remembers once, sometime in the 1980s or ’90s, when he had a gig with the Golden Eagles out in California and after driving clear across the country, he arrived in New Orleans at 7 a.m. on the same day of the Young Men Olympian’s annual anniversary parade. That meant four hours of dancing in the street. Monk recalls thinking to himself, “I can’t keep doing this.” The decision of what to eliminate was a no-brainer. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux is an Indian for life.
The mix of brass band musicians and Mardi Gras Indians permeates the membership of Cha Wa. Many second line regulars will recognize Joe Maize, who the band has nicknamed Jose to differentiate him and Joe Gelini, as blowin’ trombone with the TBC (To Be Continued) Brass Band. He and J’Wan co-wrote the first cut, “Cha Wa,” which is obviously a rather sophisticated variation on the traditional “Injuns, Here Dey Come.” It opens with the sousaphone of Clifton “Spug” Smith who runs with the Black Hatchet Indian gang and also plays the large horn with the Big 6 Brass Band alongside Cha Wa trumpeter Eric Gordon who’s a member of the Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians. Rounding out this Indian/brass connection is vocalist Thaddeus “Peanut” Ramsey, another member of the Big 6 who also holds the position of spyboy with the Black Feathers.
The thread that lovingly ties the New Orleans musical community together continues in Cha Wa with Haruka Kikuchi, a trombonist who is often heard playing in traditional jazz bands. Rounding out the core group, new arrival to the Crescent City, guitarist Ari Teitel boasts solid creds in jazz, funk, Mardi Gras Indian music and beyond.
According to Ben Ellman, who produced both of Cha Wa’s albums, it was by design that Spyboy sounds brassier than the band’s first album. “We took a different approach on recording the brass on this record,” says Ellman, a saxophonist with the rock/funk band Galactic and a busy producer, having worked with Trombone Shorty, the Revivalists, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and co-producing Galactic. “The other record was recorded sort of tight and isolated. On this record we went for a sort of roomy horn sound—having all of the horns playing in one room together at the same time and the musicians standing next to each other. On a sonic level that was a very conscious decision to make the horns sound less studio—a more complete sound. We were really going for the big horn room sound.”
“Watching the transformation of J’Wan was amazing,” Ellman continues on his experience producing Cha Wa’s second release. “Between the two records, to me, it showed that he’s been studying and practicing and taking vocal lessons and taking being a singer seriously. He’s become so much stronger because I think that he decided that’s what he’s going to do. I figured it’s something that he’s always known he was going to do.”
Spyboy presents more original material than Cha Wa’s debut CD and the band’s smart choices of cover tunes hit the spot. They include “Hey Baby,” the 1961 hit by Bruce Channel that always gets a crowd singing along. “It’s usually used for weddings and parties so everybody just knows it,” J’Wan says explaining its popularity in the brass band community and noting that on the album it features vocalist Danica Hart.
Cha Wa also selected Bob Marley’s classic “Soul Rebel,” in part, says Gelini, because the group wanted the album to have some “protest vibe” represented in both the covers and originals like the aforementioned “Visible Means of Support” and J’Wan’s “Chapters,” on which he sings, “You don’t know about me… you don’t know nothing about what’s in my book.”
“I felt that ‘Soul Rebel’ kind of fit under that [protest vibe] moniker of being able to be a free thinker and not being marginalized by the sort of crazy regime that’s happening in our country right now—racism, police brutality and all that shit,” Gelini says.
“We used to do a [reggae] mix of ‘One Love,’ a reggae version of ‘Brother John’ and ‘Three Little Birds,’” says J’Wan, while also acknowledging his grandfather’s love and use of reggae in his music. “Bob Marley was his idol. He actually went down to Jamaica and recorded a whole reggae album.” (According to Monk, the album still needs finishing up so it hasn’t been released yet. Incidentally, Monk Boudreaux was with Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias when they opened for Bob Marley & the Wailers at the Warehouse on July 30, 1978.)
Gelini reminds us that there have always been a lot of similarities amongst the call-and-response Mardi Gras Indian songs, offering as an example the relationship between “Shoo Fly” and “Injuns, Here Dey Come.” “We know so many of the traditional songs and we’ve played them for so long that we’re taking that root system and we’re sort of flipping the script a little bit and augmenting it with more contemporary music that we listen to. ‘Spy on Fiya,’ has the chord changes of ‘Wade in the Water’ and we did it as a straight-up Afrobeat groove. It was definitely Fela Kuti–inspired.” The saxophone of Yirmeyahu Yisrael, a talented musician who’s worked with Trombone Shorty and others, definitely brings a very modern edge to this traditional song.
“‘Can’t Cage a Bird,’ ‘Chapters,’ and ‘Visible Means of Support’ were not derivative of the traditional songs, just highly influenced by them,” Gelini adds.
Beyond performing at local clubs, events and festivals, Cha Wa has been touring nationally and internationally for the last three years. “They were hugging us when we got off the stage at the Blue Note in Tokyo,” Gelini fondly remembers.
“J’Wan is really good about explaining to the audience at the beginning of the show what the story is with us. That we’re not just coming up here trying to pretend like we’re Native Americans, and that there’s a whole bloodline history—he’s a direct descendant of the Cherokee and Choctaw [tribes]—and how runaway slaves were harbored by the Native Americans.
“My grandfather didn’t really talk about it [our Native American ancestry],” J’Wan points out. “We’d either have to ask him or we just had to research it. I feel that it’s touching. We took a trip to Taos, New Mexico and really got to talking to the Native Americans.”
A special moment of that trip came when a man named Patrick “Mountain Bird” Trujillo explained Native American drum beats to the visitors. “He played that beat while we sang ‘Indian Red,’” Gelini remembers with pleasure.
“I think the intention of the drum is the same,” says Gelini, speaking of the Native American and Black Indian cultures. “I think you’re trying to get in touch with and tap into whatever you want to call it—the spirit—or whatever that universal energy is.” For the Mardi Gras Indians the importance and spirituality of the drum, an instrument that boasts a great voice, goes back to its African source.
Gelini feels confident in the stability of Cha Wa’s current membership as it has remained intact since the reorganization of the band soon after the group’s first recording. “This is the most ensemble-based group that we’ve had in our history,” declares its founder. “I had been thinking for a while about having it be a more street-based, street-influenced band. We drew the new members from our friends—it’s not like six degrees of separation. It’s a pretty tightly knit friendship of people. It’s not like just hired guns.”
On the cover of Spyboy, J’Wan Boudreaux, donning his pretty, jeweled, beaded and feathered red suit that he wore on Mardi Gras 2018, stares resolutely with a fabricated hatchet in hand as if to say, this spyboy is here to stay. Inside the CD’s jacket, many great thanks are given to Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. No words ring truer than the bow down to Monk and his huge and constant influence: “We would literally be nothing without you.”
“Every time I sing, he says, ‘Use your singing voice—you can’t sing like you talk,’” J’Wan says, relating just one of the many, many things that his grandfather has taught him. This advice helped the ascending young vocalist realize the difference between singing on the streets with just drums and being on the stage with more instruments.
“From Monk I learned how to not be afraid to be yourself,” Gelini says. “That the important part is the passion and the intent—just feel the spirit. Often I would describe him as a shaman on stage. He would be feeling this energy and he would just go to this place. The goal was to get to that place—not phoning it in. I think the thing that has been most enjoyable for me is seeing J’Wan carrying the torch and to see him develop from a teenager to a young man and become this amazing singer, bandleader and storyteller. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
“When he was a little boy, J’Wan always told me, ‘Grandpa, I want to be just like you.’ And he is just like me but he doesn’t know it yet. I tell my grandson what they told me: ‘Just keep doin’ what you’re doing.’”