If you go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, you gotta go see the Mardi Gras Indians at the Heritage Stage. It’s the perfect place to hear this transcendent music, see the awesome beauty of full-suited Indians coming in their magnificent colors and become swept up in it. The performances on the Heritage Stage are unusual in that they are abstracted, formal presentations of the Indians as a stage show rather than the community interactive street parades that the Indians engage in on Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph’s Day and Super Sunday. During Jazz Fest, there are also Indian parades each day on the grounds of the fest that are closer to what goes down at Mardi Gras on the streets of the city. Fest goers are encouraged to second line along with those parades.
Jazz Fest is the only place where you’ll see Indians in multiple settings—the traditional street parade, accompanied only by percussion instruments; formal concert settings with electric instruments and in some cases horns; and as part of a larger band performance. The gangs, which come from neighborhoods all over the city, have a common core of traditional material, much of it derived from the intricate interactions that occur when Indians meet each other on the street on Mardi Gras Day. But each gang has its own story and each Chief has his own way of telling that story. Listen for the differences in the details, the material original to each gang, and don’t forget to dance.
Friday, April 27
Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. will present a show at Congo Square that fuses modern jazz with Mardi Gras Indian music he learned from his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison. The alto saxophonist’s album Indian Blues is a landmark moment documenting the intersection of jazz and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Harrison Jr. now leads his own gang, the Congo Square Nation.
“I am the only modern jazz artist that is a real Big Chief in Afro-New Orleans culture,” says Harrison. “The Africanized culture of New Orleans is the missing link to a lot of American music. I think it is a miracle that it is still alive today and that I get to do some of the things that the framers of jazz did over a hundred years ago.”
That same day the Heritage Stage will feature one of the best of the younger generation of Mardi Gras Indians, Big Chief Juan Pardo & Jockimo’s Groove. That stage will also host the Golden Sioux, Black Seminoles, Wild Apaches and Black Mohawks.
Saturday, April 28
The greatest living Mardi Gras Indian Chief, Monk Boudreaux, will sing with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars on one of the big stages. Monk usually arrives toward the end of that great band’s set to deliver his monumental piece “Lightning and Thunder.”
The Heritage Stage features the venerable Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians with Howard Miller; the Mardi Gras Indian/funk group Cha Wa, whose album Funk ‘n’ Feathers is definitely worth a listen; David Montana and the Washitaw Nation; the Comanche Hunters; the kids of Young Guardians of the Flame; and Wild Mohicans, Creole Osceolas, Seminoles and Ninth Ward Black Hatchet.
Sunday, April 29
When Monk Boudreaux leads his Golden Eagles it will be one of the greatest moments of the whole festival. Monk is the greatest living storyteller and culture bearer of the Mardi Gras Indians, and listening to him talk of stepping out on Mardi Gras Day or learning the ropes from Black Johnny is like watching a great preacher at work. Big Chief Kevin Goodman returns from Texas to lead the Flaming Arrows on a day that also features the Young Seminole Hunters, Black Feathers, Monogram Hunters, Ninth Ward Hunters and Shining Star Hunters.
Thursday, May 3
Big Chief Lil Charles Taylor leads the White Cloud Hunters on a day that also includes performances by the Cheyenne and the 7th Ward Creole Hunters.
Friday, May 4
The 79rs Gang Mardi Gras Indians showcase their more contemporary approach to the genre. Check out their eponymous debut album. Ike Kinchen will lead the Golden Comanche on a day that also features Big Chief Bird & the Young Hunters, the Young Cherokee, Young Eagles and Algiers Warriors.
Saturday, May 5
Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias will summon the spirit of the great Bo Dollis “one more time.” Dollis Sr. was the author of the first commercially released Mardi Gras Indian recording, “Handa Wanda,” and Bo Jr., along with his mother Big Queen Rita Dollis, do a great job of keeping the tradition alive. Also on that day are Victor Harris leading Fi Yi Yi and Mandingo Warriors, Trouble Nation, Mohawk Hunters, Wild Red Flame, Uptown Warriors and Young Brave Hunters.
Sunday, May 6
The Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians are one of the most legendary gangs dating back to the days of Big Chief Jolly, George Landry. Chief Jolly brought his nephews the Neville Brothers into the fold to make what many consider the greatest Mardi Gras Indian record ever recorded, the 1976 release The Wild Tchoupitoulas, featuring their funky take on traditional songs and original material like Cyril Neville’s “Brother John.” Another legendary gang, the Wild Squatoulas, will also perform, along with Chief Howard Miller with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Rhythm Section, the Hard Head Hunters, Buffalo Hunters, Young Magnolias and Apache Hunters.