Monk Boudreaux was born to be a Mardi Gras Indian.
It is not a career, a craft or a profession, though one needs to go through an apprenticeship to become one.
It’s a blood and spirit celebration of the bond between African people brought to the New World as slaves and the indigenous people who were here when they arrived. The interchange was not just cultural. Monk, like many Mardi Gras Indians, is part of the undocumented creolization that occurred when the arrivals to the New World interacted with its indigenous people. Emancipated blacks, like many other Americans, were reluctant to admit a native heritage at a time when the United States was in open warfare with the Indian nations. You don’t want to go from the plantation to the reservation.
“Choctaw Indian, we Indians,” Monk explains. “Mardi Gras day we don’t just be doing this for masking. We be doing this for who we really are. It was a hidden thing. The older people hid this because they was hiding from the government because they didn’t want to be put on the reservation. That’s why they kept it low ’file and they never to talked to nobody ’bout it. Mardi Gras day was the day.
“That’s what it really was. They never talked about it. Mardi Gras comes. That’s the day. They never talked about it. My grandmama she was on her dying bed she said ‘Tell him I’m on my way’ and that’s when she told me. They never told me that before. I was spending all this time and money being an Indian and I could have been anything for less money and less time. She told me why but I already knowed why. I knew there had to be a connection ’cause I knew how I felt and I was wonderin’ why I felt like that and then she told me. I know my daddy was masking. My granddaddy didn’t mask but he used to do secret talking. When the old people talk we had to go outside. One time a cousin of mine living in Baton Rouge did some research and found out we had people outside of Houma on a reservation. I go fishing there right now. Some things are left alone. I have people say ‘I’m Boudreaux too so I say ‘We may be kin you never know.’”
Monk is a leader, a folklorist, a singer of songs, a storyteller, and a window into a unique corner of humanity. His trademark phrase, delivered with a tolerance that defines the infinite patience of a master of oral tradition, is “They don’t understand.” His mission is to make them understand. Accordingly, he learned the oldest traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs and added his own to the mix. He has been a mentor to countless Mardi Gras Indians himself, and has been generous in opening the secrets of that tradition to outsiders, not just in New Orleans but all over the world.
He is the greatest of teachers in that he will share his message with anyone who will listen. We were fortunate to get a lesson from him on the eve of his 76th birthday. Joseph Pierre “Monk” Boudreaux was born on what the history books call the “Day of Infamy,” December 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled the U.S. into World War II. The day has no such significance for him, as his education took place outside the realm of a school system that had no use for him.
“My family will be there on my birthday, but I’m not planning a party, because I’ve got to sew, got to get the suits ready for Mardi Gras day,” he says. Monk helps prepare the suits for his whole family. He says he expects “15 to 17” of his relatives to join him on his procession this year.
We arrived in front of Monk’s Uptown house to pick him up. The house took on six feet of water in the Katrina flood and Monk used the carpentry skills handed down from his father and grandfather to rebuild it. “I put up all the sheet rock, did all the painting,” he says proudly. “They tell me the house is worth $250,000, but it’s worth more than that to me.” Monk’s story was used as part of the storyline of David Simon’s HBO series Treme. He was the inspiration for the character Albert Lambreaux. Simon also used Monk as himself for the drama in a powerful moment during the first episode. Monk’s return after the flood to find his Mardi Gras Indian suit in the safe place he stashed it before leaving town is documented in the 2010 film Bury the Hatchet.
We took off to trace a route down to where Monk grew up, a block away from his Mardi Gras day destination, the Sportsman’s Bar at the corner of Second and Dryades. “We don’t have a set route,” he says. “We go whichever way seems best at the time. I signal the spy boy ahead which route to take.” Our route today takes us along until we get to Dryades Street, where we retrace Monk’s steps on Mardi Gras day along with the steps of his life.
Monk’s father masked with the Wild Squatoolas. When Monk was a boy he was not allowed to be part of the rituals, especially on Mardi Gras day, when the children were under strict orders to stay on the porch and watch the Indians from there. Monk’s father left the gang before the boy started masking himself. He never told his son why he quit masking, but after Monk became chief his father started up again as second chief.
“I was taught the Indian songs as a kid,” says Monk. “That’s where they come from. My dad was an Indian before I was, he masked Indian. He used to leave out at five o’clock in the morning so we had to stay in until he got back, catch him later on in the daytime. I think I was 12 when I was allowed to participate. Now all my grandkids when they’s one years old we take ’em out. But during that time you had to do your own suit so I had to wait ’til I learned how to sew my own Indian suit. The practices was held in the back yards, in the chief’s backyard. It was like a hidden culture y’know. Later we started having the practices in local bars.
“It’s not hard to learn the songs because if it’s in you, it’s in you, yeah, once it’s in you, it’s in you. I always talk about old black Johnny. He used to come into town every year and stay through Mardi Gras day. He never masked, but he knew the songs. He took me under his wing and he taught me the songs. He told me ‘They may not hear you now but you just keep on singing, they’re gonna hear you one day.’
“I never intended to be a chief but when it was handed down I accepted it. That was before my father passed because he masked second chief for me. It was handed down. I was the second spy boy for the White Eagles. The way it go, the first spy boy he’s in line to be the chief, so when he didn’t want it it got handed down to me, second spy boy. So I accepted.
“The spy boy, he’s part of the game because he’s number one. The chief is last but the spy boy is first. People don’t know that. They don’t know. I know they don’t know. I get a lot of questions everywhere I go, people ask questions.
“Before my time it was violent but to get involved in it deeply we stopped all the violence because we didn’t see where it make sense. Why would we fight amongst each other for what reason and why they were doin’ it I don’t know why. Still don’t know why. So we started going to all the different Indian practices. We invited the chiefs from downtown to come to our practice and they would invite us to their practice so we all pretty much got along together.”
Monk arrived at Second and Dryades and was surrounded by a group of men eager to greet him. Inside, the affable barman Steve kindly turned down the TV so we could talk and took some snapshots of himself with Monk. This very block was where Monk grew up.
“See that beige house down the corner?” he pointed to the corner of First and Dryades. “See that tree behind it? That’s where I lived. The house is gone there, but that’s where I lived. See this lot here? That was the H&R Bar, where I made my first record with the Golden Eagles.”
Monk’s childhood haunts ranged all over the neighborhood. Though he was strictly forbidden from following the Indians downtown on Mardi Gras day, he had free rein the rest of the time. He got his nickname from climbing trees, making him witness to a lot of events, some of which he wasn’t supposed to see. But that curiosity led to a wisdom that has informed his storytelling to this day.
Monk grew up with another local kid who would become a famous Mardi Gras Indian Chief, Bo Dollis. He was also tight with the Neville Brothers, especially Aaron, though he and Cyril played conga drums together at Indian practices.
“We come up together, Jolly they uncle, big chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, we was all together. We used to have Indian practice, we’d go to his, he’d come to ours. Jolly got his name because he was a jolly fella, laughing all the time. He was a good person. He masked with the Wild Magnolias one time.
“Nevilles was a presence. I was close to Cyril. Art is older than me about three years. Charles is the oldest. Aaron, I really knew Aaron, we were friends, still is. He was born with that voice. Bo knew him. New Orleans ain’t a big city, you got Uptown you got Downtown; you got back o’ town you got front o’ town; that’s it. Cyril started coming to practices but he wasn’t singing then, he was beatin’ the drum.
“I knew Bo practically all my life. Because we come up in the same neighborhood, he was just a couple of blocks from me. I come up on First and Dryades and Bo came up around Jackson. I met him through a friend. I always did know Bo’s brother ’cause we around the same age, and then one day a friend brought Bo around our neighborhood and that’s how I met him.
“You know when you’re good people you meet people and you come to be friends. Like I said I knew his brother and all and he was younger so I met him later on. I think I was already masking with the White Eagles when I met him. Bo started young. I started I think two years before him. Bo and I had practice together when we first started going into the bar when I was with the White Eagles and Bo wasn’t masking yet. It was different because we had the practice in the Big Chief’s back yard. But when we got to be friends we started to have practice in the bar so him and I practiced together. ’Cause we were in the same neighborhood.”
By this time Monk had built an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs and was embellishing them with his own stories.
“Each tribe from different parts of town, they may sing the same song but they got different lyrics, the same background but different lyrics,” he explains. “Right now today if you will come to Uptown practice and you were hearing somebody singing in there that really know how to sing then you go Downtown you’ll hear that same song but it will have different lyrics to it. We was singing about what we do and they was singing about what they do.”
Monk and Bo were at the forefront of the young Mardi Gras Indians in the late 1960s, introducing new ideas into the old traditions. By this time the White Eagles had broken up and Monk was leading the Golden Eagles. Bo was Chief of the Wild Magnolias.
“Our practices would start about 8 might break up about 12 because a lot of people would come and we’d let them all sing and they could go as long as they want to. Bo and I was together. He would sing, then I would take over, then he would come back in. We was doing it traditionally and everybody was singing the same song so then I started chanting my own lyrics,” says Monk. “When we was in our teens we met Quint Davis. He was about 17 years old. He came to one of our Indian practices and he went on and on and on. When he graduated from school he said ‘Y’all are making music that nobody else is making all over the world and I would like to make a record.’ And so we did ‘Handa Wanda,’ it was four Wild Magnolias and four Golden Eagles we joined hands because Bo and I was two powerful young Indians in the city. Bo had the loud voice and I had the mind, I was taught, we put that together and we came up with some music that people are trying to recapture right now today.”
In 1970 Davis brought them into the studio with keyboardist Willie Tee, bassist George French and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste backing up the Indians to make a 45 rpm recording of “Handa Wanda” and the rest is history.
“We didn’t have any idea about recording,” says Monk. “We didn’t do anything different. They followed us; we didn’t follow them. Like I said we all come up together in New Orleans and Willie Tee had a band. Quint thought it would be a good idea to get Willie Tee with us because he come up in the neighborhood. He knew about the Indians. At the time he was doing a different type of music but we know that he could back us. Ain’t too many people even today that can back the Indians. It’s gotta come from your heart. It’s a new music to them where nobody else teaches this type of music. It’s the music they wanna play because it’s got a lot of fire to it, it’s a religion thing. They say gumbo, well that’s what Indian music is about, gumbo, it’s got all kinds of music, jazz, blues everything goes into it.
“Willie Tee was from the neighborhood. One time he say he live on Third and I think Dryades, and he also lived on LaSalle Street, that’s when I was knowing him because we went to school together. He was big but to us it didn’t matter because we had our own music. We wasn’t into that recording thing, so as far as we knew he was joining us.
“We went in with the percussion thing that we do and he listened to it and then he started playing it. Like I say he came up in the neighborhood so he knew about it. He was playing different kinds of music but he knew what we were doing.”
“Handa Wanda” was in jukeboxes all across the city and remains a cornerstone piece of local music every Mardi Gras. But the real moment Monk and Bo brought their music to the outside world came at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, when festival organizer Quint Davis asked them to lead a Mardi Gras Indian parade to the festival. The Indians became a regular feature of the festival.
“When we went to the Jazz Fest they didn’t have a lot of people there,” Monk recalls. “So Quint says ‘Let’s go through the Quarter.’ So we put our suits on and went through the French Quarter and brought the people back to the festival. They followed… they had to follow, we put down some bad sounds. Me and Bo. We did ‘Handa Wanda,’ ‘Meet the Boys…,’ ‘Shallow Water,’ we did all the old traditional songs.”
Davis got the band a contract with the French Polydor label and they made a record, then toured to promote it.
“We did the first record for Polydor. We went on tour with it, but they kind of pushed that to the side. They said we were before our time.”
Monk was glad to return to the neighborhood and his regular Indian practices because he wasn’t sold on the electric band concept.
“During that time I was only doing percussion because that was the way I was taught and I didn’t like the idea of an electric band. I came out with my own record, made at a practice at the H&R Bar, which was Lightning and Thunder and that’s the way I felt it. Bo and I was together. He wasn’t on Lightning and Thunder because this was like a percussion thing but he was there. We hung out together all the time, every day. I went on with my percussion thing, played a lot of folk festivals, even when I didn’t have a record out. I went all over the world even without a record because people were seeing what I did as folk music.
“Rounder Records put out Lightning and Thunder. People saw me at Jazz Fest with my percussion band the Golden Eagles and they started booking me all over the world. That was under Rounder. After that I introduced Bo to Rounder and we did another record with Bo and then we started traveling together again. We got back together and we got this band the Bayou Renegades with June Victory to back us.”
Bo and Monk made several records as the Wild Magnolias and toured under that name even as they kept their traditional gangs. They were powerful live as Bo, a natural R&B singer and entertainer, relished the role of the frontman as the more spirit-oriented Monk was edged into a role as backing vocalist.
“When they tell me I got to go into the studio I know what I got to go in there for,” says Monk. “But they didn’t let me do a lot of recording. Bo had the voice and that’s what the people wanted to hear. But I was always there in the background somewhere and like old black Johnny told me ‘You just keep on singing, they’re gonna hear you one day, people are gonna come from miles around just to hear you get down.’
“At first Bo would come on and do his version of a song and then I would come in and do my version. We had it so down pat ’til it just locks right in. They never let me sing too much on the records and then we met this stranger and I wasn’t sure how he was gonna act with us and what he was gonna do for us so I didn’t wanna do more lyrics.”
The stranger Monk was referring to was a manager who represented the Wild Magnolias, trademarked the name and concentrated on promoting Bo Dollis. Monk knew it was time to move off on his own. He made a series of records beginning with a terrific collaboration on Shanachie Records with Anders Osborne, producing one of his most powerful albums, Mr. Stranger Man. Monk by this point had warmed to the idea of blending his percussion band with electric guitars.
“I didn’t feel it back then,” he admits, “but as the years go on I say, well, everything changes.”
Monk was a founding member of the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a group dedicated to raising public awareness of the disappearing Gulf Coast. Then came Katrina, and everyone in New Orleans was forced to evacuate the devastated city. The black communities were pretty much wiped out and there was a sense that they might never return. The Mardi Gras Indian culture seemed in particular jeopardy. But Monk never wavered in his belief that it would return, and since 2005 he has been one of the most important leaders of that culture.
“I was one of the first ones back,” Monk says. “I gave an Indian practice at Tipitina’s. Right after they let everybody start coming back we had a practice at Tipitina’s. It was packed out. I told Quint all you gotta do is put the word out. Indians they got to come back, this is home. They all thought they was coming to a repast ’cause word got out that I had drowned in the flood. Somebody put the word out that I was dead. I was up in Colorado working. I heard ‘Everybody in Texas think you dead!’ Well, now they come back, even if they still in Texas they come back to mask on Mardi Gras day.”
Quint Davis put Monk in charge of assembling the returning Indians to perform at Jazz Fest, a role Monk has performed to this day. He has played and recorded with various bands around town, including a reunion with Bo Dollis in the Wild Magnolias before his death and gigs with Bo Dollis Jr. since then. As a featured vocalist with the 101 Runners Monk finally put the story of old black Johnny down on record, and he has recorded several other projects, including the reggae-influenced Rising Sun and Won’t Bow Down, which includes a revealing story about his childhood, “Education.”
Under Monk’s curatorial watch the Mardi Gras Indian presence at Jazz Fest has flourished. Not only has the culture revived, it has been refreshed with a lot of new blood and some of the gangs are introducing bold new elements into the traditional mix.
“It’s gonna continue,” Monk promises. “It’ll never die. They gotta lotta young people comin’ out, they learnin’. They need somebody to teach them. You gotta sit down and listen. It was like we was doing a video shoot from the Treme and one of the producers come out and ask me ‘Monk, what are you sayin?’ Ha ha ha. I said that’s Indian talk you might not understand it but I was saying ‘Hold him Joe your donkey want water.’ I’m telling my spy boy to hold his donkey if he wants some water. He didn’t want no coconut water, that’s all they had. The way I do it they can’t understand when I talk that Indian talk ’cause it’s a secret language.
“Some of what I know may pass with me but whatever the new people do will be right ’cause it’s their story. Indian music has got all kind of music into it. It’s spiritual ’cause it’s got a lot of power in it. It reaches people right inside. Once they hear it they got to get up. You got people dancing that don’t dance. I played in theaters where they didn’t get up but they was trying. One time we was in London in this theater where they don’t dance I was doing a song and everybody got up, everybody was going up and down, coming on stage. Yeah it’s a religious thing, it’s a spiritual thing. When I be going into it the spirit guide me.”
On the way back to his house, on Freret Street approaching Louisiana, Monk recalled a rough moment on a recent Mardi Gras day.
“We was moving along, singing, and this guy come running up with a rifle, all wild. Johnny Vidacovich was there, children was with us, we had all the Baby Dolls along. I grabbed the guy and hugged him. He was all wild, saying they had killed his friend across the river. So I told him ‘Then that’s where you should be, take this across the river.’ He hit me. But it turned out the rifle was only a BB gun.”
Monk can defuse that kind of madness with his power. And now he’s concentrating that power, every day, into sewing those Mardi Gras suits.
“I have to do it,” he chuckles, “because it’s in me. This is not a costume. It’s who I am. I’m an Indian. Sometimes I think most everyone in New Orleans has some Indian in them.”