It starts with a needle and thread.
“You have to want to sew to be an Indian – that’s the key rule,” says J’Wan Boudreaux, lead singer of Cha Wa, a Mardi Gras Indian brass band from New Orleans.
To truly join a tribe, one has to sew his own suit adorned with colorful feathers, beads and patches. Each suit represents the soul of its creator, its wearer. That’s why Boudreaux stitched images of dream catchers, Native Americans and the tools with which they hunt on to his own.
“Everybody has their own personal connection to their suit,” he says. “My connection is more spiritual because of all of my patches. We all pick our own patches, and I’m feeling this way.”
Cha Wa, translating to “We’re comin’ for ya” in Indian dialect, digs deep to honor its ancestral roots in their latest album Spyboy, which earned the group a 2018 Grammy nomination in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category. The six-piece jazz group is taking the stage at the 29th annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest on September 7 to bring a little Mardi Gras magic to the District.
Boudreaux shares that the concept for the Grammy-nominated album came from his own personal growth as a vocalist, but the title of Spyboy itself represents the position he holds in his tribe the Golden Eagles.
“Spyboy is the eyes of the tribe,” he says. “I lead the way along the parades, and I’m the one that makes sure we’re going where we’re supposed to go. At one point throughout this album, I stepped up – it was now or never. Everybody had a hand in the album, but it’s about my personal experience.”
Boudreaux says his grandfather Monk Boudreaux, who is the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles, has been a source of inspiration and guidance to him since he was about two years old. Monk is a musician himself and was once a vocalist and conga player for the Wild Magnolias, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe that heavily influenced Cha Wa.
Joe Gelini, Cha Wa’s drummer and founder, used to play percussion with Big Chief Monk in the Wild Magnolias. But in 2014, he officially decided to break off and create his own group. He pulled J’Wan into the project and Cha Wa was born.
“I was fascinated with the music and the culture and art of Mardi Gras Indians,” Gelini says. “As a drummer, I was particularly intrigued because the rhythms are prominent force in New Orleans music. I was hooked.”
The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians stems back to the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when black men first dressed as Native Americans during the Mardi Gras parade to pay homage to the natives who helped so many slaves escape to freedom.
Today, Mardi Gras Indian tribes continue the tradition of honoring both their Native American and enslaved African American ancestors by parading down the streets of New Orleans and performing the music that is unique to this region and group of people.
“It’s [about] informing people about the culture and not just the music,” Boudreaux says. “We talk about slaves trying to escape with the Native American Indians, and from them showing us their ways, that’s where we get our singing, dancing and music. We’re saying, ‘Thank you.’”
Gelini says he’s excited to share the Mardi Gras Indians’ music and culture with the District this fall because of the city’s own unique go-go music scene, which the drummer compares to New Orleans brass bands.
“We’re going to bring the New Orleans street parade to the stage,” he says. “We’re performing songs from Spyboy and some new stuff including a new single, ‘Wild Man,’ which will be released before we perform at Rosslyn Jazz Fest.”
Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, says she’s looking forward to the “diverse and powerful acts” featured at the festival this year – including Cha Wa.
“Year after year, we’ve seen an increasing enthusiasm for New Orleans bands and the great energy they bring, and we believe Cha Wa will continue to build on this tradition,” Burick says. “They’re extraordinary artists who really reflect the spirit of the festival by performing social music that sparks excitement and interactions amongst festival goers.”
On his last words considering Mardi Gras Indians, sewing elaborate suits and performing at the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, Boudreaux had this to say: “Cha Wa means we’re comin’ for ya.”
Don’t miss the 29th annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest on Saturday, September 7 from 1-7 p.m. Go to www.rosslynva.org for more information on the festival, and to www.chawaband.com to learn more about Cha Wa.
Rosslyn Jazz Fest at Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org