Cha Wa: Funk ‘n’ Feathers at the Sunset Concerts

Cha Wa: Funk ‘n’ Feathers at the Sunset Concerts
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Who: Cha Wa
What: Sunset Concert Series (Mardi Gras Indian band)
When: 2017-07-13
Cha Wa hustles into the Sunset Concerts Thursday, July 13 on the steps of Shryock Auditorium. The Ma
Leah Williams
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Cha Wa hustles into the Sunset Concerts Thursday, July 13 on the steps of Shryock Auditorium. The Mardi Gras Indian band brings a bright, brilliant blend of deep funk and percussive polyrhythms to produce an honest party sound that pays homage to and celebrates the history of New Orleans’s infectious rhythms.

Bandleader and drummer Joe Gelini, who moved to New Orleans after he graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has been involved with Mardi Gras Indians for several years. He first heard their music (one of hip-hop’s primary musical ancestors) when he went to see one of his mentors, New Orleans-born jazz and funk drummer Idris Muhammad, perform.

Gelini asked if he could have a lesson, not knowing that simple request would forever change his life.

“It’s so real,” Gelini said. “It just kind of spoke to me. I was not ever exposed to that much soul.”

When he moved to New Orleans, Gelini saw Indians march down Dryades Street on Mardi Gras Day, and he was hooked.

“It was the energy, the spirit, the honesty,” he said. “Cha Wa started as almost more of a project than a band, and it just kind of grew from there.”

The origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are shrouded in mystery, with some historians tracing their existence back to the 1700s, when official records first noted the presence of Africans in New Orleans wearing Native American attire.

Mardi Gras Indians today sew intricate, gorgeous suits with large, brightly feathered headdresses called crowns. On Mardi Gras Day, Indians tribes march through the streets singing, chanting, and playing various percussion instruments. When two tribes meet, they battle over which one has the prettiest outfits and, in a sort of poetry slam or dozen contest, makes the best music.

Mardi Gras Indian tribes hold gatherings in bars and backyards, where they rehearse their rhythms and singing and make costumes. Gelini said he learned how to play the drums from the percussionists who provide the rhythmic base while the Indians would sing and keep one another in line. Gelini later became friends with a number of the Golden Eagles, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s band.

Cha Wa— their name is a slang term meaning “We’re comin’ for ya”— uses these traditions as well as some authentic practitioners of New Orleans funk. Gelini said a major component of the Cha Wa sound is Spy Boy J’Wan Boudreaux, the grandson of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. The senior Boudreaux is considered one of the greatest Mardi Gras Indian singers ever. J’Wan combines the lyrics and style of his grandfather with a more modern take on the traditional music.

Gelini said Funk ‘n’ Feathers, Cha Wa’s 2016 debut album, incorporates Mardi Gras Indian music, brass bands, and the street culture of the Crescent City with the funky musical stylings of the Wild Magnolias (backed by the Meters), the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers, and Doctor John.

Ben Ellman of Galactic, who also produced Trombone Shorty’s breakthrough album Backatown, produced Funk ‘n’ Feathers. The contemporary result culminates on a wild interpretation of Doctor John’s “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” which keeps the feet moving from start to finish.

Gelini said that performing with Cha Wa is more of a feeling than thinking process.

“Hopefully as little [thinking] as possible,” Gelini said. “It’s as real as a feeling as any thinking. If I’m thinking, then there is very little feeling. It should be spontaneous and spiritual.”

Gelini said the band is excited to come to Carbondale.

“It’s like having Indian practice with modern recordings and modern production and using it all together,” he said about the band’s live show. “It’s classic and contemporary at the same time.”

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who: Cha Wa

what: Sunset Concert Series (Mardi Gras Indian band)

where: Steps of Shryock Auditorium


when: Thursday, July 13