TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Cha Wa pays homage to the past and looks to the future

That's Joe Gelini standing beside J'Wan Boudreaux in his suit along with some of their mates. Photo: Erika Goldring.

At the time of this interview, Joe Gelini, founder and drummer with the band Cha Wa, was reflecting on the death of Dr. John.

“It was a pretty rough night,” Gelini said from his home in New Orleans. “So we will just do the best we can. He will always live 0n in our music and hearts and minds. He was a real advocate for musicians and he always kept his blue collar sensibility.”

And the Night-tripper, like many in the Big Easy, was influenced by the music behind Cha Wa, a band built on the tradition of Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

That history begins in the late 19th century.

At the time the carnival that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans was dominated by white “crews,” Gelini said.

“African Americans started paying homage to their history on Mardi Gras Day, which is a day of costuming with everyone becoming what ever they wanted. It was a day historically when people could be anonymous and still celebrate.

“The white crews that put on parades and balls would be dressed up in costume, Black men were not allowed to participate in Mardi Gras then. But they still would put on these feathered suits and crowns and go out and pay homage to their ancestors who were slaves and native Americans.”

Long before slavery ended in the U.S., some black men and women would escape and many found refuge with Indigenous peoples who lived in the Louisiana bayous.

They would inter-marry, Gelini said. Both groups had experienced oppression. Native Americans had faced displacement and genocide and the Africans were slaves.

That bloodline has continued and today finds expression in the suits that are worn and in the music that is played. The elaborate suits cost thousands in materials alone and can weigh up to 100 pounds. A suit usually takes between six and nine months to plan and complete.

Gelini, when he landed in New Orleans caught some performances by some of the most important Mardi Gras Indian musicians such as Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Theodore ‘Bo’ Dollis and The Wild Magnolias.

He was captivated.

He would go on to play with Monk Boudreaux and soon after he founded the band called Cha Wa, which means in Mardi Gras Indian tribe slang ‘We’re comin’ for ya’ or ‘Here we come.’

“I went to New Orleans after I finished at Berklee and I was blown away by the music and culture of New Orleans especially by Mardi Gras Indians music. I got a chance to see The Wild Magnolias perform on stage and I was hooked.

“One thing led to another. Monk Boudreaux was my mentor and allowed me to go to the source, the folk music aspect of it.

“I would go to practice on Sunday nights before Mardi Gras and perform with the other drummers. I was just hooked on it. Out of pure selfishness I wanted to do more.”

His goal, “was to be able to have people discover Mardi Gras Indian music and enjoy it and be as much in awe of it as I was when first started seeing and hearing it.”

Gelini came to New Orleans soon after graduating from the Berklee College of Music.

“I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Monk and getting to go back to the source of this music. I played with him on Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday and St. Joseph’s Night. I think that what we do all includes that history.”

The band also includes J’Wan Boudreaux who is the grandson of Monk and, Gelini says, he is next great Mardi Gras Indian singer even though he is only 22.

J’Wan is part Choctaw and Cherokee and African American.

“His grandfather would say that Mardi Gras Indians only came out on Mardi Gras Day because they didn’t want to be sent to the reservation,” Gelini said.

Since founding the band, Gelini has been “learning how to emulate the music.”

With that foundation Cha Wa has started developing its own voice. That led to a Grammy nomination for the album Spyboy, which is a term for those who lead the parade.

“We are not a tribe,” Gelini said. “We are a band. It would be different if we were an actual Mardi Gras Indian tribe. We aren’t bound by any of the specific traditions.

“In the same sentence, I would say we try to represent New Orleans and Mardi Gras Indian culture wherever we go. We are ambassadors by default just by doing what we do. We take it very seriously and we are highly influenced by the tradition.”

Today, “we use call and response rhythms as the main driver of the music but we have incorporated some more standard songwriting and arranging into it. That was so we could keep the nuts and bolts of the music but we were able to do it in a way that was a little less derivative.” The music is a danceable mix of brass band and funk.

In performance J’Wan comes out in his Mardi Gras suit. The process of putting on the suit is called masking.

New Orleans is the cradle of American music. Gelini has been there now for two decades.

“If you are a music lover, it all starts here.”

Cha Wa
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: OLG Stage, Confederation Park
When: June 28 at 10:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.