Bayou bash: Mardi Gras Indian band brings the sound of New Orleans

Bayou bash: Mardi Gras Indian band brings the sound of New Orleans
Erika Goldring

They’re coming for ya!

A Mardi Gras Indian band will transport lunchtime listeners from Downtown’s MetroTech Commons to the pulsing streets of the French Quarter on July 25, by blasting the sounds of New Orleans streets at a free afternoon concert hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The eight-piece band Cha Wa will perform its upbeat blend of funk and brass-filled jazz, while its two singers draw the eye with feathered Native American outfits that honor their home city’s rich heritage, according to one of the group’s founders.

“It’s a lot of pageantry along with a deep musical tradition,” said drummer Joe Gelini.

The group, whose name is Indian vernacular for “we’re comin’ for ya,” formed around Gelini, along with lead singer J’Wan Boudreaux and his uncle Joseph Boudreaux, Jr., who are the grandson and son, respectively, of “Monk” Boudreaux, the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe.

The tribe is one of dozens that trace their origins to the intermingling of escaped African slaves and Native Americans in the New Orleans region.

J’Wan is second-in-command of the Golden Eagles tribe, known as a “Spyboy” — also the name of Cha Wa’s Grammy-nominated 2018 album. He and Joseph Jr., who both have black, Choctaw, and Cherokee heritage, spend most of the year crafting traditional outfits out of canvas, beads, and feathers, which they debut each year during Mardi Gras, according to Gelini.

“It’s a very personal and detailed piece of artwork,” he said.

The group was inspired by Monk Boudreaux’s performances with the Wild Magnolias, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe that also performed as a funk band in the early 1970s. Cha Wa honors that tradition by including musical elements like call-and-response rhythms, while its horn section adds in brass sounds in the vein of New Orleans jazz.

The band’s music is infectiously upbeat, but the lyrics often highlight the Crescent City’s issues with racism. The track “Visible Means of Support” references a Jim Crow-era vagrancy law that allowed police to fine black men for loitering if they could not prove they had “a visible means of support,” or were looking for a job.

“It was like a modern day stop-and-frisk,” Gelini said.

The band is set to release a new single this summer, followed by a full-length record next spring.

Cha Wa at MetroTech Commons [Myrtle Avenue between Lawrence and Bridge streets Downtown, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. July 25 at noon. Free.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kdugg[email protected]glocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.