CHA WA! Mardi Gras Indians Invade New England

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PHOTO: CHA WA @ MASS MoCA 8/24/19 - Adams, MA

It has been said the city New Orleans is the soul of America. That her music and culture is the mother's milk of every form of American culture and entertainment. That American music and culture is primarily African-American and all roads of America's cultural heritage lead directly to  Congo Square in Tremé, to the French Quarter, the birthplace of jazz  and to the many Mardi Gras Indian Tribes throughout New Orleans who pre-date and helped foster jazz into existence.   

If that is the case, then the Mardi Gras Indian Funk band Cha Wa is the current caretakers of the soul of New Orleans' music and culture.They are paradoxically both the vanguard and guardian of the Cresent city music scene, simultaneously representing her past, present and future. When this revolutionary, yet traditionalist band goes on stage anyone who experiences a set of their shamanistic-get-loose-have-fun traveling tincture of Mardi Gras day first hand knows just how life affirming they truly are. 

The Black Star Newscaught up with Cha Wa at MASS MoCA in Adams, Massachusetts, one the largest centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States. Of course, we first spoke about singer Spyboy's stunning Indian suit. "We pay homage to Native Americans because in New Orleans there is a historical connection between Native Americans and African slaves," Spyboy said.  

The origins of Mardi Gras Indian culture is deeply shrouded in mystery, yet their are pivotal moments in its evolution we know of. 

One primary component was Congo Square, which by 1740 was the epicenter of African culture and music. Unlike the rest of slave cities in North America, New Orleans residents allowed their slaves to roam freely on Sunday in Congo Square. There, they would drum, sing, dance and let loose. 

Another aspect of Mardi Gras Indian culture was the fact that runaway slaves in New Orleans could rely on the Chitimatcha Native American tribe to hide them in the swamps around New Orleans. This heroism created an indelible bond between both Native Americans and what would emerge as the African-American community in New Orleans. By the mid-19th century, African-Americans were marching in chicken feathered Indian suits before Mardi Gras

In 1884-85, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show wintered in New Orleans, which according to Daily Picayune was "the people's choice" for entertainment. That Mardi Gras in 1885 over 50 Plains Indians from BBWWS marched in the parade. 

That year, The "Creole Wild West" was formed, the first of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes.The chicken feathers were also replaced with colorful peacock feathers .When other tribes began forming, rivalries and bloodshed soon followed. James Sugar Boy Crawford's, "Jock O Mo" also known more widely as  "Iko Iko" is based on various threats by  Chiefs to each other. By the late 1960s, Allison Montana, "Chief of Chiefs", was able to finally squash the violence between the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes.

Over time the Tribes learned to fight with sewing needles instead of knives when the various tribes agreed to settle scores with Indian suit contests. The suits themselves, can cost thousands of dollars, take an entire year of sewing by hand and weigh over a hundred pounds when complete. 

Today, their are about 38 Mardi Gras Indian Tribes currently in existence. The Golden Eagle Tribe, of which Cha Wa is formed around, is one of the most predominant tribes in New Orleans. 

The Golden Eagle's Spyboy, J’Wan’ Boudreaux has the swag of ten rock stars and has a truly unique, soulful, Grammy- nominated-voice to back it up. The band's name means “we’re comin’ for ya” in Indian vernacular. Whenever they hit the stage, its is a guarantee you will be hearing a blistering set of Cha Wa originals weaved in with traditional Mardi Gras music, like the Neville Brothers "Fire On The Bayou." Their music is dynamic and high energy enough for any giant festival and they would be the perfect opening act for Santana (please,ditch the Doobie Brothers), Dead & Company or even the Stones.

Founding member and drummer Joe Gelini is pleased with Cha Wa's growth since their inception in 2014. In his mind they have progressed into a true collective of musical collaboration and creative input. "We are always moving forward," he said. 

For someone who grinds it on the road behind a drum kit most of the year, Mr. Gelini is quite an upbeat individual. But when every gig is a Mardi Gras party, what else could he be?

On Friday, September, 27 - Cha-Wa wil be holding an all-streaming-format-release-party at an undisclosed location for their new single Wildman. After that, they will be back in the studioworking on their next release. 

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