Big Chief Irving "Honey" Banister of the Creole Wild West and J'Wan Boudreaux, spy boy of the Golden Eagles and grandson of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, break down their massive, hand-stitched suits — which double in weight once they're soaked in sweat onstage — into separate suitcases every night on the road. The vocalists in Mardi Gras Indian funk outfit Cha Wa "are always sewing," says drummer Joe Gelini.
"After every show these guys have to hang their stuff up, air it out, wipe it down — they got to repeat the whole thing the next day," Gelini says. "The suits take the highest priority of anything in the luggage."
Cha Wa released its debut album Funk'N'Feathers April 1, building on the Wild Magnolias' funk and the rhythms from Indian street parades.
Gelini first met Banister at weekly Indian practices at Handa Wanda's, where Wild Magnolias drummer Norwood "Geechie" Johnson got Gelini up to speed. "He really got me straight. I was a little overconfident for what I thought I could do," Gelini says, laughing. "Geechie was like, 'Hold up. Let me show you how to do it.'"
As a new Indian band in a genre that has only a few, Cha Wa is challenged with rearranging traditional and seemingly ancient holy music while respecting the culture and invigorating the genre with and for a new generation. Gelini said he hopes "to expose people to Mardi Gras Indian music so they appreciate it as much as I did, but also have a situation where the Indians themselves respect, listen and enjoy it, and we can cross over to audiences that might never have been exposed to Mardi Gras Indians and draw from the funk side of it."
Cha Wa's diverse lineup on Funk'N'Feathers also includes guitarist John Fohl, Stephen Malinowski on organ, Yoshitaka "Z2" Tsuji on piano and Haruka Kikuchi on trombone. Johnson adds bass drum and backing vocals, and Ellman jumps in with saxophone. Davell Crawford also guests performing his grandfather "Sugar Boy" Crawford's "Jock-a-Mo," and Colin Lake plays lap steel on "Li'l Liza Jane."
"I think it was really trying to blend the classical nature of it and the contemporary, where our generation's influence comes from," Gelini says. "There's a void in having the traditional rhythms, the street rhythms, in a contemporary production. ... Rhythmically we're keeping the Indian beats, the second line beats, the bamboula beat. ... There's a lot of history there. Why not try to expose people to that?"
Produced by Galactic's Ben Ellman, Funk'N'Feathers collects a bulk of the Mardi Gras Indian canon, from "Ooh Na Nay" to "Hold 'Em Joe," wrapped in slick production and bursting with live energy.
On album opener "Injuns, Here They Come," the band builds an atmosphere, first with immersive percussion, then the familar mantra, then swirling organs and funk guitar riffs. Gelini arranged a propulsive "Shallow Water" to pay homage to the psychedelic funk on the Wild Magnolias' early recordings. "When I listen to those old Wild Magnolias records, which are huge influences to me and the rest of the band, there's that vibe," he says. "You got Indian practices, you go on the street on Mardi Gras, on St. Joseph's night, on Super Sunday — it's all vibe. The hair on the back of your neck will stand up."
That "vibe" carries over onstage — the band doesn't necessarily rehearse songs but learns to speak a common language that Gelini jokes is "100 percent" improvisation.
"What we've been able to develop, which is what a lot of bands strive for, is the intuitive nature of playing with other musicians," he says. "There's a level of trust we've built playing with each other. Even the mistakes can become super musical."