New Orleans funk band Cha Wa is coming down underby James Belfield
With funk and flamboyance, Cha Wa are keeping alive an important slice of US history: the Mardi Gras Indians.
The visiting group’s second album, Spyboy, earnt them a nomination at this year’s Grammys for its mix of Mardi Gras flamboyance, brassy grooves, Native American chants and political messages.
But as well as the afro-beat, reggae, Sly and the Family Stone-style funk and street music that they’re bringing to New Zealand, Cha Wa are also keeping alive an important slice of US history: the Mardi Gras Indians, who have been parading in New Orleans since at least the mid-19th century.
Cha Wa lead singer J’Wan Boudreaux, 22, is of Afro-American, Cherokee and Choctaw descent, and his grandfather, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who makes a cameo appearance on the album, is leader of the Golden Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe.
Each year, J’Wan makes a handsewn feathered and beaded “Masking Indian” suit, but his stage outfits are about more than just standing out from the crowd.
“It’s paying homage to their Native American ancestors, who took in escaped slaves during the years of slavery in the South, protected them and then intermarried with them,” says Cha Wa founder and drummer Joe Gelini.
Spyboy’s songs have the same mix of sparkle and substance. On Visible Means of Support, Monk Boudreaux recalls vagrancy laws that would have landed him in jail if he couldn’t produce a payslip. And J’Wan’s Chapters brings social commentary up to date with its chorus-groove of “you don’t know about me, you can only tell people what you see”.
“Because of the influence of New Orleans street culture, most people understand Cha Wa as dance music – and we certainly celebrate life,” Gelini says. “But songs of freedom are the essence of Mardi Gras Indian music, so we also have a socially conscious message, and I hope people will leave asking themselves important questions.”
This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
John Campbell on TVNZ’s Breakfast. There was a time when the idea would have seemed preposterous.Read more
Much of the work on happiness is based on surveys, but what happens if we examine what people actually do?Read more
Police are following up several new tips in the suspected cold case murder of Auckland teen Joanne “Joe” Chatfield.Read more
The Pike River re-entry team steps through the double airlock doors today, watched by families of the 29 men who died in the 2010 tragedy.Read more
The Republicans' strategy of not co-operating with Congress is undermining the system of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution.Read more
New Zealand's leading current affairs magazines pick up Voyager Media Awards.Read more
The people have spoken on the hit TV dance-off and we deserve everything we get.Read more