Deriving their name from a slang phrase popularly used by Mardi Gras indian tribes that means “we’re comin’ for ya” or “here we come,” the Grammy Award-nominated New Orleans-based funk act Cha Wa — currently founding member and bandleader Joe Gelini, along with Spyboy J’Wan Boudreaux, Second Chief Joseph Boudreaux, Ari “Gato” Teitel, Joseph “Jose” Maize, Clifton “Spug” Smith, Aurelien Barnes, Eric “Bogey” Gordon, Edward “Juicey” Jackson and Haruka Kikuchi — can trace their origins back to 2014 when Gellni was first introduced to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition while attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he met New Orleans-born, jazz drummer Idris Muhammad, who gave Gellini lessons in New Orleans-styled drumming.
As the story goes, those lessons inspired Gellini to relocate to New Orleans after graduation. Gellini quickly became involved in the city’s beloved Mardi Gras Indian community, eventually attending rehearsals for Mardi Gras marches. Gellini met Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Golden Eagles and one of the city’s most widely known and popular Mardi Gras Indian vocalists at those rehearsals. Coincidentally, Boudreaux is the grandfather of Cha Wa’s frontman J’Wan Boudreaux.
Unsurprisingly those rehearsals eventually turned into Gellini performing alongside the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian legend. Gellini met J’Wan Boudreaux while the younger Boudreaux was still attending high school, but shortly after, J’Wan joined the band as their frontman. Since then, Cha Wa have established a sound and aesthetic that simultaneously draws from New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition and the city’s beloved rhythm and blues and funk sounds through the release of three albums — 2016’s debut Funk ‘N’ Feathers, 2018’s Grammy Award-nominated Spyboy and their most recent album, My People, which was released last week.
“Mardi Gras Indian tradition and culture goes back over 250 years in the city of New Orleans. And it’s a culture that derives from men of color wanting to celebrate the Mardi Gras holiday but weren’t able to at the time,” Boudreaux explained in an interview with NPR. “So what they did was they created these elaborate suits…it represented the Native Americans that helped the Blacks escape slavery, and they actually helped them throughout the swamps and the bywater to get where they needed to go. So to pay homage to those natives, these men created what we call today Indian suits.” On the album Cha Wa founder Joe Gellni adds that the group “”tapped into that collective unconscious of what it is to live in New Orleans and to see all the nuances and ways that different people of color in the band actually experience racism — what sort of plight we’re facing in New Orleans socially and culturally, and class-wise and environmentally.”
My People‘s latest single, album title track “My People” is a strutting bit of funk that’s one-part classic second line march, one part The Meters, one part Nite Tripper-era Dr. John centered around a shuffling rhythm, shimmering Rhodes, a big horn section and call and response vocals singing lyrics that remind people of the universal facts of life: the rich get rich, while the sick get sicker; that while we have our differences, we have much more in common than we expect — we’ll all experience heartbreak, despair, frustration, loss, death. And if we can see that the universe in others, it may mean we get closer to understanding someone else’s life and their pain.
Although they haven’t been able to tour, as a result of the pandemic, but they have made a recent appearance on Good Morning America and on NPR, and that has allowed them to spread the album’s music and message to a much wider audience — and not just to those who will agree with them, but as Boudreaux explained to NPR “also to the people who may not be so open…just try to open up your eyes and see the world through the lens of the next person – the person that’s next to you, being held down by these different things like systematic oppression…if we don’t say anything about it, then no one will actually understand and know that we’re with them.”