Cha Wa

Cha Wa's second album, Spyboy, was produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman and features special guests Big Chief Monk Boudreaux (The Wild Magnolias, HBO’s Treme), Nigel Hall (Lettuce, Nth Power), and Danica Hart. Joe Gelini is pictured in the front. 

Only New Orleans could have produced a band like Cha Wa. They mix up that city’s more iconic music genres—jazz, second line, funk and brass—but add to the pot a big helping of Mardi Gras Indian culture and music. That is a century-old subculture of African-Americans who have inherited or adopted Native American culture as an homage to the local tribes who hid their ancestors from slaveowners in the bayou. 

In Cha Wa, that’s expressed most visibly by its frontman and lead singer J’Wan Boudreaux, a 21-year-old Mardi Gras Indian (he has the position of spyboy, or scout) from the Golden Eagles tribe. As per tradition, he dons an elaborate wardrobe and headdress of colored feathers, beadwork, tassels and lace. His grandfather, Monk Boudreaux, is the Big Chief of his tribe and was in one of the original Mardi Gras Indian bands in the 1970s, Wild Magnolias.

That’s the band from which Joe Gelini learned about the culture and the music. And Joe later went on to start Cha Wa. This Saturday will be their debut at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the last date of their current world tour. 

You can read a Face-to-Face interview with Boudreaux about the history and culture of Mardi Gras Indians in the Sept. 26 issue of the Monterey County Weekly, the cover for which is devoted to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Below, Gelini talks about the music behind the band.

Weekly: Where did you grow up?

Gelini: In New England. I went to college in Boston, at the Berklee College of Music [and studied professional music]. Afterwards I moved to New Orleans. I’ve been here close to 20 years.

What attracted you to New Orleans?

I was blown away that music is part of the city’s culture and heritage. It’s not just entertainment. This is the cradle of American music. It’s where jazz, rock 'n' roll were born—you name it. All of my favorite musicians are from New Orleans. The Meters, Dr. John, The Neville Bros, Louis Armstrong. It’s always been a destination in my mind. As soon as I got here—saw people so interactive with the music, call and response between band and audience, dancing—I felt like this is where I belong.

What is the Native American element in your music?

The Mardi Gras Indian call and response chants are folk music in New Orleans that date back to the 1700s…documented. It probably goes back further. Mardi Gras Indians are paying homage to Native Americans, and some of these chants get passed down through the generations. We have that element in our music, but we also write more contemporary music that goes along with it.

What was it like to be part of the Wild Magnolias? What were shows like?

I was the drummer when Monk Boudreaux and Bo Dollis [Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias] reunited. It was a dream come true. I idolized these guys. Unfortunately, Bo Dollis senior had several strokes and had health problems. He could sing better than he could talk toward the end of his life. When he got in front of an audience, the love went both ways. It wasn’t in their heyday, but I was humbled to be there in the sunset.

What, from that time, do you bring to Cha Wa?

I developed a lot of practical skills of being able to rehearse musicians, hire musicians, be on top of and inside the music to explain it at a moment’s notice. I learned how to lead a band.

How do you write music?

I usually just record melodies into my phone. If I have an idea that comes on spontaneously, I’ll write it on piano and bring it to rehearsal, see if it materializes into something everybody’s feeling.

What is the story behind the song “Visible Means of Support”?

I wrote it with Monk. It’s based on a story of him in the 1950s as a young man. A common occurrence was that New Orleans police would arrest African American men based on an old Jim Crow law called “no visible means of support,” a vagrancy law. If you didn’t have a pay stub to prove you were employed, they could take you in. You could spend 10 days in jail or pay $10. That was used to exploit African American men and women. [It was like] a modern-day stop-and-frisk policy. It’s interesting to be an observer and travel with these guys all around the world and see the nuanced or in your face racism against people of color. It’s something we try to bring some awareness to.

What does “cha wa" mean?

“Cha wa” means “here we come” or “we’re coming for you.” When Mardi Gras Indians meet in the streets, different spyboys will yell, “Cha waaaaaa!”

Cha Wa plays 2:20-3:10pm Saturday, at the Jimmy Lyons Stage, and 5-6:15pm Saturday at the Garden Stage, at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival. 888-248-6499,

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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