When the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians Big Chief Joseph Pierre “Monk” Boudreaux comes out of his front door Fat Tuesday morning to sing “Indian Red,” he’s singing history — the city’s, the culture’s and his own. The prime anthem of New Orleans’ Black masking Indians has been part of his personal soundscape since before he can remember.
“I must have been about 12 when I decided to mask,” he said over the phone just a few days before his 79th birthday. “I went to the chief’s house every Sunday for practice, when Indian practice was hidden, in the chief’s yard at his house.” He’d heard the song his whole life — his father Raymond was also a masking Indian, with the Wild Squatoulas gang — “but I didn’t know what the meaning was,” he said. That first Big Chief, of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians, was also initiating him into a storied and mysterious tradition.
“They teach you things that people wouldn’t know,” he said. “You have to be an Indian to understand what they’re saying.”
The first recording of “Indian Red” is likely the one author and musician Danny Barker made for King Zulu Records — styled “My Indian Red” in Barker’s version — shortly after World War II. But documentation of the song being sung ceremonially, to open or close Indian practice or before setting out in the streets on Carnival morning, goes back much further. Also known as the “Indian Prayer,” it has a weightier and more formal tone than most of the propulsive, rattling chants that accompany Indians on the move. Somber and sacred-sounding, its proud chorus — “Won’t bow down” — induces shivers.
Indian culture is rooted in Black New Orleanians’ pride and independence. The custom of sewing and parading in brightly feathered Indian suits, riotously colorful and intricately beaded with scenes and symbols that tell stories of things that hold meaning for the wearer, dates back over a hundred years or more. The Native American aesthetics of the suits are a nod of tribute to the Indigenous people who aided African Americans who managed to escape their captors during slavery. And the Indian tradition is still very much an expression of freedom — the freedom to take over the streets with loud songs, primal beats and gorgeous colors, bearing a torch for something singularly New Orleans.
Monk Boudreaux, who was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow in 2016, has brought that culture all over the world. In the ’70s, he famously collaborated with the late Big Chief Bo Dollis in the Wild Magnolias, the first band to build its sound around Indian chants and traditional Indian handheld drums, cowbell and tambourine shot through with the gritty, electric funk that was becoming the city’s new musical signature; the sound has reverberated through the generations, influencing acts from Dr. John to the Grammy-nominated Cha Wa, a next-generation Indian funk group whose members include Boudreaux’s son and nephew. He’s performed around the world and on the stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center with his own Golden Eagles and as a member of the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, as well as alongside acts like Galactic, Anders Osborne and Papa Mali. Boudreaux was also a focus of the award-winning 2010 documentary film Bury the Hatchet, which followed three Mardi Gras Indian Big Chiefs as they worked to rebuild their lives and their culture in the years following Hurricane Katrina.
Big Chief Monk is an icon and an ambassador for New Orleans and Mardi Gras Indian culture. Over more than five decades, he’s represented his city and his tradition around the world. But probably no stage is more important than the front steps of his own Uptown home as dawn breaks on Carnival Day, when he walks out into the holiday and sings “Indian Red,” as generations have before and, he hopes, will continue to do.
“It’s not just masking,” he said. “It’s who you are. It’s a spirit within that automatically comes out.”
It’s like a prayer.