REBECCA SANTANA – Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — This time of year, there’s really only one place you’ll find Grand Chef Joseph “Monk” Boudreaux: At his New Orleans home, sewing beads with a needle and thread as he assembles the elaborate outfits worn by the townspeople. famous Mardi Gras Indians.
Almost every year since childhood, Boudreaux has come out on Mardi Gras morning in a new costume, created by his own hand, accompanied by other members of his “tribe” and sings the distinctive music he helped share with the world. .
” I can not stop. I can not. Because I was told when I was a kid… ‘You carry on the tradition because if you let it go it will be gone forever,’ Boudreaux said, sitting in his New Orleans home. “And I have to make sure that my son and my grandchildren take that torch and carry it.
At 80, Boudreaux leads a group of Mardi Gras Indians called the Golden Eagles, known both as a leader in tradition and for a musical career that spans decades and l took him away from his hometown. This year, Boudreaux is gearing up for both the first Mardi Gras celebration in two years after the pandemic canceled last year’s festivities, and an April trip to the Grammys, where he’s nominated for his first Grammy. .
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The Indian tradition of Mardi Gras – also called Black Masked Indian – has been a central part of the black carnival experience here since at least the late 1800s. Members of various groups create beaded and bejeweled outfits and feathered headdresses that combine elements of Native American and African heritage with carnival, and parade through the streets of the city.
The tradition is believed to have started in part as a way to pay tribute to Native Americans in the area for their assistance to runaway blacks and slaves and for their resistance to colonization. It also developed at a time when segregation prohibited black residents from participating in whites-only parades.
An estimated 28 to 30 tribes with names like the Wild Magnolias and the 9th Ward Hunters participate regularly, said Tyrone Casby, who leads his own tribe and is an Indian Mardi Gras Council officer. Some take their names from their neighborhoods or Native American tribes.
Leaders are known as chiefs. There is also the spyboy, who monitors the tribe’s route, and the flag boy, who sends messages from the spyboy to the chief.
With their use of Native American tribal images and names, Mardi Gras Indians have sometimes raised questions about whether they are unfairly adopting native culture.
Jeffery Darensbourg, a mixed Native Creole writer and activist who is a member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation and lives in New Orleans, says he often answers questions from Native Americans around the country who see Mardi Gras Indians and wonder why. blacks are dressed like that. way. But, he said, many black people in Louisiana, including Mardi Gras Indians, have Native American heritage.
What Indians do at Mardi Gras is a celebration of “resisting oppression,” he said, and a far cry from things like using Native American names as sports mascots. And like many things in a city hundreds of years old, it’s a tradition that draws on a complex, multicultural heritage, he said.
“People should first understand the tradition, then they can make an assessment of it,” Darensbourg said.
For Boudreaux, who had Choctaw and Cherokee grandparents, it’s an expression of his heritage, which he does with respect and with a sense of responsibility to carry on the tradition.
He and other Indians spend months preparing their colorful costumes. Then, tribes like Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles take to the streets on Shrove Tuesday looking for other tribes in a contest to see who is the prettiest.
Boudreaux was a child when he created his first costume. His father introduced him to the tradition. He describes that first outfit as “tattered” but says other members supported him and the following year it got better.
His teenage years had challenges. At 17, he spent nearly a year in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for punching a police officer. And he never finished high school: “I graduated with seniors. They taught me everything I know.
At 19, Boudreaux was on the path that would eventually lead him to the Grammys. He became the leader of his tribe, and it’s a position he’s held ever since.
Music is an integral part of India’s Mardi Gras tradition, with tribes singing songs about their history and customs. Leaders use musical call and response to communicate with members when they are on the streets. As Mardi Gras approaches, Indians practice their music in bars.
Boudreaux is credited with being one of the first Mardi Gras Indians to record music, essentially taking what was an art form known almost exclusively to the city’s African-American population and helping to bring it to the mainstream. world.
It ended up becoming his career.
Boudreaux originally performed with fellow Mardi Gras Indian leader Bo Dollis in the Wild Magnolias, who married the style of Mardi Gras Indian singing with electric funk. After a split in the early 2000s, Boudreaux embarked on the production of his own albums. He performs regularly at festivals and venues around the world, and in 2016 he was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.
“I’ve played with just about every musician in New Orleans,” Boudreaux says.
On the latest album, titled “Bloodstains and Teardrops”, Boudreaux sings and plays tambourine with other musicians on guitar, drums, harmonica and violin. In this Grammy nomination in the Regional Roots category, he competes against his grandson and son, who were nominated as part of a group called Cha Wa.
Boudreaux creates all the lyrics but does not write them in advance, instead going into the studio without notes and making up songs from his experiences, much like he leads his tribe on Fat Tuesday.
“He’s a damn good street improviser,” said Nick Spitzer, a folklorist at Tulane University and producer for American Routes Public Radio.
“Bloodstains and Teardrops” combines Indian Mardi Gras music with Jamaican sounds and was produced in part during a trip to Jamaica and then at the studio of longtime Boudreaux collaborator Tab Benoit in Houma, south-east. west of New Orleans.
“He always takes Indian Mardi Gras music in new directions,” said Keith Spera, music writer for The Times Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.
And Boudreaux has plans for more; maybe a percussion album or an album with his son and grandson, says his manager Rueben Williams.
But that’s in the future. For now, he’s looking forward to going out on Shrove Tuesday, where he’ll be greeted by a large crowd, then lead his tribe through the streets of the city.
And then he goes home, where Boudreaux is doing barbecues for the crowd.
“Everyone is welcome,” he said.
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.
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