Cha Wa: A Mardi Gras Indian Tradition in Denton

Tomorrow, on December 1st, Dentonites will have a unique opportunity to see a band called Cha Wa at Back Yard on Bell. Cha Wa plays upbeat, funky tunes with a New Orleans twist that any attendee is sure to enjoy. But Cha Wa isn’t just about entertainment, and their sound isn’t quite that simple—the band is largely comprised of Mardi Gras Indians, members of a cultural tradition well over 100 years old.

The history of the Mardi Gras Indians is incredibly fascinating. “Mardi Gras Indians are African-American men and women who pay homage to the Native Americans who harbored their ancestors while escaping from slavery,” says Joe Gelini, drummer and band leader for Cha Wa. Gelini explains that African-American people in New Orleans were not originally permitted to celebrate or participate in Mardi Gras traditions. Instead, community members held their own celebrations in their neighborhoods and donned elaborate suits that were painstakingly handcrafted to pay tribute to traditional Native American dress. (Participation in this Mardi Gras Indian tradition is known as "masking.") “For generations, these disenfranchised men and women have sewn intricately designed suits all year with beaded mosaic designs and feathered crowns to honor their Native American and African ancestors on Mardi Gras Day,” Gelini says.

Gelini has been creating music in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition for eight years. “I had been working as the bandleader and drummer for both Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian bands,” he tells us. “Diving deeper into the culture and music…I decided to start my own band that could play these songs in a more unique and contemporary style.” The band’s main singer, Spyboy J’wan Boudreaux, who is the grandson of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, “has been masking with the Golden Eagles since he could walk,” Gelini says.

Cha Wa label themselves as a funk band who play Mardi Gras Indian music composed of Mardi Gras Indian singers and musicians. Gelini is careful to specify that Cha Wa is not a traditional Mardi Gras Indian tribe, however. The Golden Eagles, with whom Spyboy Boudreaux has been masking his whole life, are one example of many Mardi Gras Indian tribes that call New Orleans home.

So what should you expect when you go to see Cha Wa tomorrow evening? According to Gelini, you'd better get ready for a “New Orleans Mardi Gras street parade, lightning in a bottle musicianship, and a dance party all in one!” Sounds good to us!

Cha Wa performs tomorrow, December 1st, at Back Yard on Bell. Check Facebook for more detailed information on the show, which begins at 8 p.m.

Header image design by Brittany Keeton