Jazz Fest Focus: Cha Wa

Cha Wa keyboard player Tom Worrell. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Cha Wa's Tom Worrell. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Drummer Joe Gelini was playing with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux during Super Sunday 2010 when something caught his ear. “I heard this voice that was so commanding, this big, booming, rhythmic voice,” he says. It belonged to Mardi Gras Indian singer Eric “Yedi” Boudreaux. “Yedi and I started playing together in the street. It just felt so natural.”

The result was Cha Wa. “We start out with the traditional Mardi Gras Indian call-and- response music that you hear in the streets,” says Gelini. “Some of these songs have been played traditionally for over a 100 years. We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but we were trying to do our own version, which is inspired by our love of the music.” He cites the Wild Magnolias, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas as influences.

“There’s a tendency to have a revolving cast of characters,” Gelini says. “I really wanted to have a band.” The band now includes Colin Lake (lap steel), August Jepson (congas), Bill Richards (bass), Tom Worrell (keys) and Kerry Vessell (bass drum). In their live shows, Cha Wa is all about building a groove. “It’s really about using dynamics, about being able to build things up then break it down,” says Gelini. “To be able to have tension and release even though you’re keeping the same repetitive rhythm or form.” Lake’s lap steel is one of the most distinctive parts of Cha Wa’s sound. “He infuses a little more blues into it than the normal funk approach,” Gelini adds.

“For me the exciting thing is this band is so young. We’re really just getting started.”


Cha Wa plays Jazz Fest on Saturday, May 5 at 11:15 a.m. on the Jazz & Heritage Stage.