Cha Wa: They’re Comin’ For Ya!

Hotstar Cha Wa
Erika Goldring / Getty Images
– Hotstar Cha Wa

Perhaps it’s the blood of Cherokee and Choctaw tribes mingling with that of Africa coursing through J’Wan Boudreaux’s veins. Or maybe it’s that he’s the grandson of the revered Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles tribe, a descendant of Native Americans and African slaves as well as of cultural royalty in the Crescent City. Whatever it is, he is Mardi Gras Indian to the bone

Outside of New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indians might be a colorful curiosity with their elaborate costumes – properly called suits by the Indians themselves – of brightly hued feathers, intricately beaded mosaic designs and distinct hierarchies from the Big Chiefs to the Wild Men, Flagboys and Spyboys, as well as Queens and Babydolls as more women take part. Their history goes back to the late 1800s and they remain a vital cog of New Orleans’ cultural heritage.

But the Indians are much more than a tourism draw during Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, at which many Indian-based parades and bands perform: Bands like Wild Magnolias, which has been around since the 1950s and was led for a time by Monk Boudreaux and now,  Cha Wa – fronted by his grandson J’Wan Boudreaux.

There are differing takes on the Mardi Gras Indians origin story but most agree that the tradition is an homage to the Native Americans who brought freed and escaped slaves into their tribes and protected them. They see descendants like J’Wan as evidence of the bonds of blood formed by very different groups facing violent diaspora.

Others point to Jim Crow laws that prevented African American New Orleanians from attending the celebrations and parades the city is known for, particularly Mardi Gras. When they were barred from those events, New Orleans’ neighborhoods created their own.

Themes from that history are present in Cha Wa’s second full-length, Spyboy.  “Visible Means Of Support,” a Monk Boudreaux-penned original track, addresses “vagrancy” laws that were used to arrest and jail African Americans in the city and some compare it to “stop and frisk” laws today. In an interesting trilogy sequence, it’s followed by J’Wan Boudreaux’s own telling of his, and the Indians’, history with “J’Wan’s Story” and is neatly bookended with another J’Wan-penned song, “Chapters.”

J’Wan Boudreaux, at 21, is not only upholding the longstanding traditions following his famed grandfather’s musical lead, but as a Golden Eagles tribe Spyboy, he masks Indian – meaning he dons the suit, a new one meticulously hand-sewn every year – as the lead singer of Cha Wa, which means “we’re comin’ for ya” in the Indian vernacular.

As a Spyboy, he leads the Golden Eagles tribe into Mardi Gras Day, Super Sunday and St. Joseph’s Day parades, among others. As a member of Cha Wa, Boudreaux has risen from a backup singer to frontman.

“It’s like working two jobs!” J’Wan exclaims. “You’re performing but also you have to work to make sure the next suit is being prepared at the same time. You can’t slack, at all, when it comes to creating the suit. One year, when I really started learning how to hook up my own suit, we went to Tokyo. We came back like Thursday or Friday right before Mardi Gras. I had two days to hook up my whole suit, coming straight off the road.”

Cha Wa
Erika Goldring/
– Cha Wa
FROM THEIR DOORSTEP TO THE WORLD: Cha Wa from L-R: Clifton “Spug” Smith, Spyboy Theaddeus “Peanut” Ramsey, Joe Gelini; Ari Teitel, Eric Gordon Jr., Joseph “Jose” Maize Jr., Haruka Kikuchi and Spyboy J’Wan Boudreaux.

Drummer and Cha Wa founder Joe Gelini stresses that Cha Wa isn’t strictly an “Indian band.” It’s diverse in composition – musically, racially and in gender. With the addition of a horn section two years ago, Cha Wa is poised to move the needle on what people think of as New Orleans music.

The songs on the band’s sophomore full-length, Spyboy, are twists on the traditional. The chants and call-and-response rhythms go back more than a century but are shot through with the distinctly funky brass band street music of New Orleans. You can definitely dance to it.

The band brought in friend and producer Ben Ellman of famed funkateers Galactic to help shape a modern sound that still respects the old. In addition to Gelini and J’Wan, band members include fellow Spyboy and singer Thaddeus “Peanut” Ramsey as well as Ari Teitel, guitar; Joe Maize, trombone; Clifton “Spug” Smith, sousaphone, Haruka Kikuchi, trombone; and Eric Gordon, trumpet. Monk Boudreaux contributed a song and vocals to Spyboy, which also included guest keyboards from Nigel Hall of Lettuce, singers Danica Hart and Brittany Purdy, and saxophonist Yirmeyaho Yisrael.

“Ben produced our first CD, Funk N Feathers, and we of course thought he was a natural fit for a second record as well,” Gelini tells Pollstar. “I personally really enjoy his production style and, even though he plays in Galactic, he started playing in brass bands when he was a kid. He plays saxophone. He really understands how all the New Orleans stuff is supposed to sound. . A lot of times you don’t get the same level of understanding from different producers. The folk music aspect has to be incorporated with the modern arrangements.”

Cha Wa’s manager, Charles Driebe of Blind Ambition Management, attended Tulane University in New Orleans and was already quite familiar with the musical culture of the city and was excited by the potential he saw and heard in Cha Wa.

“With this band, there’s multiple ways the music is not  ‘cookie-cutter,’ Driebe explains. “One is, the diversity of the band and the musicality of the band, combining various strains of New Orleans music. Then there’s the authenticity of the band. You put all that together and you’ve got something that I think is highly artistic and yet highly accessible.

“J’Wan lives the culture. He’s a Mardi Gras Indian, he is in a second line organization, and a Social and Pleasure Club,” Drieble continues. “A couple of other members are also in second line organizations but they are usually playing instruments in the second line rather than leading the parade.

“Cha Wa would be at home at Bonnaroo or Coachella, and they could also play Jazzfest, which they have,” Driebe says. “They can be comfortable in both of those environments. Our aim is to bring this authentic slice of New Orleans music culture to the country and to the world.” The band is putting together more dates and plans to tour Europe in 2019.

“What we really want to do is bring it to an audience so they can be part of the live experience, because it’s such a sensational, ritualistic kind of experience when you’re in the middle of it like at Mardi Gras, “Gelini says. “You see them practice and out on the streets and it’s really beautiful and spiritual. You have to see it and breathe it and kind of be in it.

“We wanted to be able to make it so that people from outside of New Orleans would hear it and understand what the premise of the entire Mardi Gras Indians style is, so it could be more accessible to them. You don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to enjoy the music. But we’re just trying to be able to spread the message to the world through our own lens.”

Formed in 2012, Cha Wa has become a mainstay of New Orleans’ clubs and numerous events and festivals. They’ve also toured regionally and beyond, usually with a smaller core band built around J’Wan and Gelini in order to contain touring costs. But agent Rusty Cole of Midwood Entertainment says that began to change last year and the expectation is for Cha Wa to continue expanding its itinerary.

“When we started working together about a year and a half ago, we did a little bit heavier touring and with a bigger band, which isn’t always a cost-effective way to go,” Cole told Pollstar.  “But we do get hired for a lot of events and festivals and we are definitely seeing the numbers grow from what we did last year. We are certainly doing major media market events and routing around that as opposed to just keeping them out on the road. It’s definitely a strategic push.”

In addition to Jazzfest, French Quarter Fest and others in New Orleans, festival invitations have included Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado, and Cha Wa has opened for such New Orleans legends as Dr. John and Jon Cleary. Cha Wa has made fans of venues including The Pour House, an influential 500-capacity room in Charleston, S.C.; 370-cap Antone’s in Austin; and 300-cap Continental Club in Houston – all of which have had Cha Wa back for repeat performances.