Hands down, New Orleans is the world’s most musical metropolis. What’s more, the Big Easy can also tout itself as the most exotic, exuberant city on the planet. These sensual delights converge and complement each other in the rich tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. Between their irresistible folk-routed music and their stunning, ornate costumes, the Indians unleash a sensory barrage that epitomizes New Orleans’ “always for pleasure” aesthetic. And among New Orleans’ many tribes, none exceeded the talent, renown and flamboyance of the Wild Magnolias.
Many misconceptions surround the Mardi Gras Indians. First and foremost, they are not Native Americans. The Mardi Gras Indians were black working-class groups that are part secret and spiritual society and part neighborhood social club. Fifteen or so tribes parade on Mardi Gras Day, chanting, singing, and beating percussion instruments. They are costumed in elaborate, handmade outfits that fancifully recall the dress of Native Americans, complete with feathers, ornate beadwork, and enormous head dresses. The spy boys mentioned in Sugar Boy Crawford’s song, Jock-A-Mo, are scouts who check out the route before a tribe advances. In decades past, this was a serious assignment, because of the possibility of violent, armed confrontations.
The origins of this tradition - which has striking parallels in the Caribbean, especially Trinidad - have yet to be conclusively documented. African, Creole, Indian, and Spanish roots have been suggested, and some synthesis of all these sources seems likely. This is also true of the meanings and the etymologies of the chants themselves. The original words and context are difficult to trace, but today the gut-level function is assertive peer-group bonding.
In recent years, some observers have theorized that New Orleans’ black community identified with Native Americans as fellow victims of oppression, and imitated them out of admiration. The Indian tradition is also cited as yet another instance of New Orleans’ status as the northern frontier of Caribbean culture. This dialogue is apt to continue, at times sparking heated debate. What’s indisputable, however, is the fact that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is flourishing. New tribes such as the Guardians of the Flame have formed in recent years, and Indian gatherings are no longer limited to Mardi Gras Day. In addition, the tradition is influencing other musical genres. One striking manifestation is the fact that progressive-country diva Emmylou Harris named her new band Spyboy, and now performs some Mardi Gras Indian material with help from her New Orleans-based rhythm section.
Big Chief Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis was born in New Orleans. As a child he followed a tribe known as the White Eagles, and he began masking as a Mardi Gras Indian around 1960 as a member of the Golden Arrows. In 1964 Dollis became Big chief of the Wild Magnolias. In 1970, the Wild Magnolias recorded a single entitled “Handa Wanda” for the Crescent City label, with Jazz Fest impresario, Quint Davis producing; nearly 30 years later, “Handa Wanda” remains a local favorite and a perennial Mardi Gras Classic. [More on Bo Dollis below]
The Wild Magnolia’s international reputation was enhanced with two mid-70’s albums, The Wild Magnolias (featuring the hit “Smoke my Peace Pipe” which the group recorded a different version for Life Is A Carnival) and “They Call Us Wild” which combined with the tribe’s deep folkloric roots with New Orleans funk. Subsequent appearances on Rounder Records in the early ‘90s underscored The Wild Magnolias’ continuing importance in New Orleans’ cultural scene, as does their Metro Blue/Capital Records debut, Life Is A Carnival.
Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis was born in New Orleans in 1944. His father was from Baton Rouge, and his mother came from a French-speaking Creole family in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Bo grew up in the central city, an old, run-down commercial-residential uptown neighborhood behind the grand St. Charles Avenue mansions. He was first attracted to the African-Caribbean-American tradition of Carnival Indians while still a youngster.
Bo’s career as a performer and his development as one of the classic singers in the history of the New Orleans recording began when, as a junior in high school, he secretly started attending Sunday night Indian “practice” in a friend’s back yard. He followed The White Eagles tribe, playing and singing the traditional repertoire. In 1957 he masked for the first time with The Golden Arrows, not telling his family of his involvement with the Indians. He made his suit at someone else’s house and told his folks he was going to a parade. Hours later his father discovered him, having recognized his son in the street, underneath a crown of feathers.
Bo Dollis’ name is virtually synonymous with the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. He is clearly the most popular Indian Chief (chosen in 1964) in New Orleans, with everybody wanting to see him in his hand-crafted suit on Mardi Gras or St. Joseph’s Day. Bo has been a legend almost from the beginning, because he could improvise well and sing with a voice as sweet as Sam Cooke, but rough and streetwise, with an edge that comes from barroom jam sessions and leading hundreds of second-lining dancers through the streets at Carnival time.
In 1975, Dollis and Monk Boudreaux, Chief of the Golden Eagles, recorded James “Sugarboy” Crawford’s 1954 R&B hit “Jackomo, Jackomo.” There is contrast in their vocal phrasing, and each swings the story line at a slightly different pace; nonetheless, the unity of spirit shines through. You can hear the closeness of these two childhood friends, the only two professional Chiefs performing in New Orleans. In 1970, they appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Shortly afterwards, they collaborated on the classic Mardi Gras song “Handa Wanda.” Seldom do they sing together in practice.
The Wild Magnolias and The Golden Eagles have taken Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux from the ghettos and brought them to places like Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, London, Nice and Berlin. Where ever they go, listeners will hear an authentic music to which New Orleans owes so much.
Edited by mfjmax on 18 Jun 2010, 16:21
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