It's not easy to stand out in a culture that's already known for voodoo queens and jazz funerals, but Joseph Pierre "Big Chief" Monk Boudreaux and his Mardi Gras Indian brethren know how to do it.
Now in his 70th year, Boudreaux is one of the most visible — and audible — figures in a centuries-old New Orleans tradition that's both colorful and, in some ways, cryptic. Only in New Orleans will you find tribes of working-class black men chanting and parading through their neighborhoods in opulent Native American costumes they've spent the year sewing by hand.
Some interpret this Mardi Gras tradition as an homage to the American Indians who sheltered runaway slaves. Others see it as a form of masquerade that gives voice to deeply felt social and political values that might otherwise go unexpressed. But in the case of Boudreaux and his family, it's more a literal expression of cultural identity.
"Well, we ARE Indians," says Boudreaux, who spent more than 30 years recording and touring with the Wild Magnolias and is currently on the road with Tab Benoit's Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. "My ancestors — my great grandmother and my mama — we was born Indian. Mardi Gras was the only day that we could really come out and be who we really was. That and St. Joseph's Night. I'm carrying out the tradition that was taught to me as a kid."
In keeping with the Mardi Gras Indian way, Boudreaux started singing and sewing at an early age.
"In my neighborhood, a lot of the older guys used to get off work and sit down on their step and play guitar and sing the blues, you know? So I used to get off from school and go sit by their house and listen to them. And my dad was masking Indian, and we used to help him in the morning, you know, at dawn, to get ready. So it was always there. And when I got to 12 years old, I wanted to mask also. So I started setting down and sewing. 'Cos that's the only way you can mask, you got to sew."
Opulent and labor-intensive though they are, Mardi Gras Indian suits are typically retired when festival time comes to an end, after which the process begins all over again.
In fact, Boudreaux tells me he's sewing his next suit as we speak: "My old lady's out of town, so I get up and I throw the clothes in the washing machine and I come sit down and sew. I'll sew until 10, 11, 12 o'clock at night."
Said, my Spy Boy eat de porkchop
Your Spy Boy eat liver
Mardi Gras morning when the Indians come
Gonna run you dead in de river
As it turns out, the language and rituals of Mardi Gras Indian culture are as elaborately constructed as its costumery: The Big Chief is the uptown ruler. The Spy Boy marches out ahead of the tribe, keeping an eye out for rival krewes. There's also a Wild Man, who wears horns and keeps the crowds at bay, a Flag Boy and a host of others.
Lyrically, Mardi Gras Indian songs often recount battles, verbal and otherwise, between tribes to see who's best at "playing Indian" and "being pretty." The verse cited above comes from a Boudreaux song called "In the Morning." Released in 2003, it's essentially a rewrite of "Jock-A-Mo," the much-covered song written 50 years earlier by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, which was itself based on two traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants.
Boudreaux says the violence captured in songs like "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront" had largely subsided by the time he came of age: "It had changed, it was just maybe a few fellas fightin' amongst each other. But it wasn't about nothing, just, you know, who's pretty and who knew how to talk when they go to talking. And before you know it, they fighting. But we'd break that up right quick."
In 1970, the Wild Magnolias, led by Boudreaux's childhood friend Bo Dollis, recorded its 45 rpm debut, "Handa Wanda," for the Crescent City label. That same year, the group played the very first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, although the crowd was a bit smaller than the 40,000 who saw Boudreaux perform with the All-Stars at this past year's event.
"Yeah, well, they didn't have 40,000 people, I don't think they had 40 people. So what [promoter] Quint Davis did was, he got us to put our Indian suits on and parade through the French Quarter and bring the people back to the festival. It worked."
And it kept working. The Wild Magnolias would go on to become musical ambassadors for a fairly secretive subculture that had been mostly unknown beyond Crescent City boundaries.
In its most stripped-down form, Mardi Gras Indian music mostly consists of chanting accompanied by tom toms, cymbals, beer bottles and cans, just about anything, really, that sounded good when you hit it.
But as the Wild Magnolias evolved, Boudreaux became more of a crooner, with an engagingly melodic style that drew upon blues, soul and eventually reggae. Dollis, meanwhile, stuck to chanting.
"Yeah, he is just loud," agrees Boudreaux with a laugh.
After the two parted ways in 2001, Boudreaux started a new group called the Golden Eagles, diversifying his sound in the process. Asked about the Jamaican influence evident on his 2009 Rising Sun album, the singer professes a love of Bob Marley and the African roots that inform both styles of music.
"It's sort of like the same style, because when we was kids all we used was drums and tambourines. That was our music until we recorded. And if you would be standing outside the practice and you would hear, you would think it was coming from Africa. But it was the Indians."
Since leaving the Wild Magnolias, the singer's profile within the New Orleans music scene has actually risen. In 2006, he appeared in full regalia on the official Jazz Fest poster as well as the cover of USA Today. He was also featured in two documentaries, and recorded with artists ranging from Galactic and Papa Mali to current tourmates Tab Benoit, Cyril Neville and Anders Osborne.
"I've worked with just about everybody in the city," says Boudreaux. "You know, they love my singing."
Even so, Boudreaux's post-Magnolias years haven't been entirely happy. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house, he was forced to relocate to Mesquite, Texas, where he lived with his daughter. But he moved back as soon as he could, taking up residence in the 11th Ward, just a few blocks from the levee.
It's hard not to admire Boudreaux's energy and resilience, especially after some four decades on the road. He's already cut five new tracks, all of them originals, for his next album. And while he doesn't miss touring with the Wild Magnolias, he's more than happy to spend time on the road with Benoit and friends.
"I love the road," declares Boudreaux."You know, that's the life I choose. I was a professional painter and sheet rock finisher, and I gave that up to sing. Because I love to sing. And I love to make people happy, you know?"