This is not your trumpet-strutting, trombone-sliding Dixieland band. Cha Wa is a musical act that defies category--well, not quite. Last year they were nominated for a …
This is not your trumpet-strutting, trombone-sliding Dixieland band. Cha Wa is a musical act that defies category--well, not quite. Last year they were nominated for a Grammy in the Best Regional Roots Music for their album "Spyboy." The region from which the band's roots are spring is none other than New Orleans, a place swathed in variegated layers rich in French, Cajun, Spanish, Caribbean, African and Native American history.
"We inevitably came up with a lot of social messages on the record because that's what's been happening in our lives for a long time -- certainly in the last couple of years with the way the world's been changing," founder and drummer Joe Gelini explained in a Billboard interview. "The guys in the band are mostly African American, and it's been such an honor to share my journey with them to see what they go through on a daily basis, the prejudices they encounter. It's really opened my eyes to being able to have some sort of level of protest songs in our work, because that's what we talk about. That's what we experience."
On Monday (Aug. 12), Seco Live brings Cha Wa back for the second time. The party starts at 6 p.m. in the happening village of Arroyo Seco at Scott Carlson's Pottery Gallery, 482 State Road 150. The band will start around 7 p.m.
For the past 10 years, Seco Live has given at least two free concerts a year. John Henderson, Seco Live member and longtime history teacher at Taos High School, puts it like this, "We bring world-class music to a world-class audience."
"The term 'Cha Wa' basically means 'We're coming for you,'" Gelini tells Billboard. "It's a Mardi Gras Indian chant, what spyboys will say in the street when the tribes are approaching each other on Mardi Gras day. It's sort of our rallying cry. It's how we get our heads in the game onstage, like weapons blazing."
Mardi Gras Indians (also known as Black Masking Indians) are black carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. Collectively, their organizations are called "tribes."
"I've always been interested in American culture -- anything that is real, anything that tells the truth, anything that sort of explains what a group of people are going through," Henderson said.
Gelini landed in New Orleans after graduation from the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He put Cha Wa together piece by piece. Drum rhythms underpin the acoustics and tradition of tribal music.
"I think the intention of the drum is the same," he noted, speaking of the Native American and Black Indian cultures. "I think you're trying to get in touch with and tap into whatever you want to call it -- the spirit -- or whatever that universal energy is. For the Mardi Gras Indians the importance and spirituality of the drum, an instrument that boasts a great voice, goes back to its African source," Gelini told Billboard.
"It's been nice to watch these guys - oh first they were three guys, now it's five guys, now they have been taking this music to the world," Henderson said. Cha Wa now has eight members with a recently added horn section.
Dating back to the late 1800s, the Mardi Gras tradition began when African American men first marched in Native American dress through the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras day. The tradition which includes a host of songs shared among various tribes has been kept alive for over a century.
"We dress up in Indian suits to pay homage to the Native American Indians because around the time of slavery, they were the first to take us in," explains lead singer J'Wan Boudreaux on Cha Wa's website biography. "Everything on our suits is handmade, the beads, the patterns, we sew together pieces of fabric and make the panels, we make the boots, everything."
Mardi Gras Indians have influenced the biggest names in New Orleans music, the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Trombone Shorty and others, according to Cha Wa.
With no physical boundaries between the crowds and the tribes in motion, the sense of chaos and exhilaration ebb and flow in a drum-driven flash. As long as they "stay the hell out the way" -- a key refrain from one of the universal Indian chants - civilians can be deep in the mix as the action swirls.
"It's a two-way street we like to show these people our culture while bringing more attention to the village and businesses," Henderson said. Everybody is there. "We believe that creating an environment where people can dance and enjoy themselves with friends and family can play a big part in strengthening community."
(As a side note, Henderson requests that people not park on Hondo Seco Road.)
Admission is free, compliments of the nonprofit Seco Live.
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