music of the

Mardi Gras Indians

My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018

It was in the late ’60s that Quint Davis first heard Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis singing. Both men were in their early 20s; Davis, the future New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival producer, was a Tulane undergraduate with a voracious interest in New Orleans music and street culture; while Dollis, just a couple of years older, was already Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians. According to Jason Berry’s New Orleans music history, Up from the Cradle of Jazz, it was the photographer Jules Cahn, who had been shooting second-line parades and jazz funerals since the ’50s, that invited young Davis to a White Eagles Indian practice at a small Central City lounge. Davis brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and as he later listened to the chants and clattering percussion he’d captured, he found himself drawn in again and again by one element in particular: Dollis’ raspy, powerful, soulful voice. He sought the young chief out again with a request: Dollis should write a new Indian song, something original, and they’d make a record.

Davis was also a fan of keyboardist Willie Tee, who’d had several R&B hits — notably “Teasin’ You” — in the mid-’60s. Davis booked Tee, who would soon form the seminal New Orleans funk band the Gaturs, to play a show alongside Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias on Tulane’s campus. Onstage, the traditional sound of Indian chants, drums and tambourines met electric soul music likely for the first time. “It was probably the first time that Mardi Gras Indian music had been done outside the culture,” Davis told OffBeat magazine’s David Kunian in a 2011 interview. “And Willie created the whole thing right there. He got up on piano and started playing with them and he went in and out and way in and way out, and it just happened.”

Dollis went and wrote that new Indian song, and Davis put together a band led by Willie Tee, which included Snooks Eaglin on guitar, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on congas, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums and a murderers’ row of New Orleans sidemen rounding it out. “Handa Wanda,” the first single by the Wild Magnolias, came out in 1970. Its follow-up, the first full-length Mardi Gras Indian funk album — with drumming, backing vocals and beadwork for the cover art by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux — was released in 1974 on the Polydor label. The Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau rated it among his top albums of the year in the newspaper’s annual Pazz & Jop poll, calling it “the most boisterous recorded party I know.”

The Wild Magnolias weren’t the only group marrying electric New Orleans funk to the city’s older traditions in the ’70s. Along with their uncle, piano player George Landry — also known as Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians founder Big Chief Jolly — the Neville Brothers participated in the recording of a masterful platter of Indian funk with The Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1976. Zigaboo Modeliste, who also played with Art Neville in the Meters, drummed on the Tchoupitoulas release as well.

In the early ’70s, the success of the Wild Magnolias’ and Wild Tchoupitoulas’ funky amalgamations drew eyes and ears from around the world, sparking new documentary interest in what had been a relatively secret, highly localized African-American tradition. Journalists, photographers and filmmakers began chasing the story behind the wild men and women in their elaborately beaded and feathered suits who took to the streets on Carnival Day, banging drums and shouting chants in a hybrid language. But the original roots of the largely unwritten tradition remain mysterious still, as Berry writes in Up from the Cradle of Jazz: “Where does it all begin?” he asks. “Written sources offer small assistance: no letters culled from dusty trunks. Timeworn memories, lodged in the minds of aging men, guide us down the path.”

Some historians note that the plumed and beaded suits of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, or Black Indians, bear resemblance to costumes seen in the carnival celebrations of Latin America and the Caribbean, regions whose cultural influence is strong in New Orleans. Another long-held piece of the tale points to Native Americans who took in and sheltered enslaved Africans in Louisiana when they had escaped their captors. The particular language of the chants, familiar phrases like those transcribed as “mighty cootie fiyo” and “two-way pocky way,” Berry writes, are a creole dialect with possible roots in some French, some Spanish and some Native American languages. The music, critic John Swenson wrote in OffBeat in 1988, is a “missing link” — a “new world fusion” of West African roots and early American jazz, blues, gospel and parade shuffles.

The first tribe of Mardi Gras Indians who masked as we recognize the phenomenon today appears to be the Creole Wild West, which was active in the 6th Ward by the 1880s; in his book, Berry cites a memoir written by a New Orleanian named Elise Kirsch, who remembers “a band of men disguised as Indians … shouting and screaming war whoops” and running down St. Bernard Avenue on Mardi Gras Day 1883. Although the screaming, costumed men were an intimidating sight, Kirsch wrote, she always looked forward to seeing them.

Jelly Roll Morton, in his extensive 1938 Library of Congress recording sessions with the famous folklorist Alan Lomax, recalled watching the Indians take to the streets in his youth at the turn of the 20th century, claiming that, in fact, he had masked as a spy boy — the Indian who scouts ahead, looking for other tribes on the move — himself. In 1956, field recorder Samuel Charters caught the first live tape of Mardi Gras Indians out in the streets on Fat Tuesday morning, consisting of raw call-and-response chants over the syncopated rhythm of handheld drums and tambourines. By that time, musicians in New Orleans had already transposed Indian words and melodies onto popular music forms. In 1953, guitarist Danny Barker self-released four sides of Indian-inspired rhythm and blues material, including a song he titled “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.” The same year, Sugar Boy Crawford recorded his own version of the song, “Jock-A-Mo,” for Chess Records. And close to a decade later, a trio of teenage girls called the Dixie Cups waxed a tune inspired by the same chant, using a name we’re more familiar with today — “Iko Iko.”

“Iko Iko,” covered by Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead and others, brought the sound of the New Orleans streets at Carnival time all around the world, just as the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas did in the early ’70s. In post-millennial New Orleans, funk and rock bands — from Galactic to Cha Wa to the current version of the Wild Magnolias, which Bo Dollis’ son Bo Jr. inherited after his father’s death in early 2015 — continue to interpret and borrow from those unique Indian chants and polyrhythms. Out at Jazz Fest, founded the same year that Dollis and Quint Davis first released “Handa Wanda,” fans from all over the world can see those acts onstage — or just the tribes in all their glory, roaming the Fair Grounds on schedule.

But there might be no better way to hear Indian songs than the way they’ve been delivered for at least a hundred years and change: out in the streets, on Mardi Gras Day.