Big Chief Bo Dollis & The Wild Magnolias
Hands down, New Orleans is the world's most musical metropolis. What's more, the Big Easy can also tout itself as the most exotic, exuberant city on the planet. These sensual delights converge and complement each other in the rich tradition of the Mardi Gras "Indians." Between their irresistible folk-rooted music and their stunning, ornate costumes, the "Indians" unleash a sensory barrage that epitomizes New Orleans' "always for pleasure" aesthetic. And among New Orleans' many "tribes," none exceed the talent, renown and flamboyance of the Wild Magnolias.
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With Metro Blue's proud release of The Wild Magnolias' Life Is A Carnival, the century-old Mardi Gras "Indian" legacy is honored with contemporary immediacy. This brink-of-the-millenium update is balanced with a vital grounding in the bedrock of New Orleans "fonk." Featuring the passionate, street-smart lead singing of Big Chief Bo Dollis, with able assistance from Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles and drummer/vocalist Norwood "Geechie" Johnson, Life Is A Carnival is also enlivened by such stellar guest stars as Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Hornsby, Rockin' Dopsie, Jr., Diva Marva Wright, New Orleans legends songwriter/ producer/ arranger Allen Toussaint as well as the arranger Wardell Quezergue, a.k.a. "the Creole Beethoven."
The album's core accompanists are equally impressive. Guitarist June Yamagishi, a Japanese expatriate, has mastered the New Orleans idiom, as has the Osaka-based Black Bottom Brass Band. Keyboardist Davell Crawford is one of the city's rising R & B stars; his grandfather, Sugar Boy Crawford, recorded "Indian" material such as "Jock-a-mo," back in the 1950s, puffing such esoteric "Indian" terms as "spyboy" in the hit context of AM radio. Drummer Willie Green works with the Neville Brothers, while drummer Russell Batiste is the sultan of second-line syncopation for the Meters. Unified by Big Chief Bo Dollis' commanding presence and deep sense of heritage, these diverse musician have forged a fully-realized and infectiously fun album that will soon be regarded as a modem classic.
Many misconceptions surround the Mardi Gras "Indians." First and foremost, they are not Native Americans. The Mardi Gras Indians are black working-class groups that are part secret and spiritual society and part neighborhood social club. Fifteen or so "tribes" parade on Mardi Gras Day, chanting, singing, and beating percussion instruments. They are costumed in elaborate handmade outfits that fancifully recall the dress of Native Americans, complete with feathers, ornate beadwork, and enormous headdresses. The "spy boys" mentioned in Sugar Boy Crawford's song are scouts who check the route before a tribe advances; in decades past this was a serious assignment, because of the possibility of violent, armed confrontations.
The origins of this tradition - which has striking parallels in the Caribbean, especially Trinidad - have yet to be conclusively documented. African, Creole, Indian, and Spanish roots have been suggested, and some synthesis of all these sources seems likely. This is also true of the meanings and etymologies of the chants themselves. The original words and context are difficult to trace, but today the gut-level function is assertive peer-group bonding.
In recent years some observers have theorized that New Orleans black community identified with Native Americans as fellow victims of oppression, and imitated them out of admiration. The "Indian" tradition is also cited as yet another instance of New Orleans' status as the northern frontier of Caribbean culture. This dialogue is apt to continue, at times sparking heated debate. What's indisputable, however, is the fact that the Mardi Gras "Indian" tradition is flourishing. New tribes such as the Guardians of the Flame have formed in recent years, and "Indian" gatherings are no longer limited to Mardi Gras Day. In addition, the tradition is influencing other musical genres. One striking manifestation is the fact that progressive-country diva Emmylou Harris named her new band Spyboy, and now performs some Mardi Gras "Indian" material with help from her New Orleans-based rhythm section.
Big Chief Theodore Emile "Bo" Dollis was born in New Orleans in 1944. As a child he followed a tribe known as the White Eagles, and he began "masking" as a Mardi Gras "Indian" in 1957 as a member of the Golden Arrows. In 1964 Dollis became the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias. In 1970 the Wild Magnolias recorded a single entitled "Handa Wanda" for the Crescent City label, with Jazz Fest impresario Quint Davis producing; nearly 30 years later "Handa Wanda" remains a local favorite and a perennial Mardi Gras classic. The Wild Magnolias' international reputation was enhanced with two mid-'70s albums, The Wild Magnolia and They Call Us Wild (featuring the hit "Peacepipe" which the group re-recorded for Life is a Carnival) which combined the tribe's deep folkloric roots with New Orleans funk. Subsequent appearances on Rounder Records in the early '90s underscored The Wild Magnolias' continuing importance in New Orleans' cultural scene, as does their Metro Blue debut, Life Is A Carnival.
Joseph Pierre "Monk" Boudreaux was born in New Orleans in 1941. He has "masked Indian" since the late 1950s, and collaborated with Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias since the mid 1970s. Boudreaux is exclusively featured on Lightning and Thunder: The Golden Eagles Recorded Live and in Context at the H & R Bar, New Orleans, a 1988 release on Rounder. Dollis continues to revel in his culture, his music, his Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and his splendiferous costumes, just as he has done for decades. Life Is A Carnival marks the Wild Magnolia's twenty-fifth year of recording. With unabashed "Indian" material such as "Coochie Mollie," "Herc-Jolly-John," and "Shanda Handa," and evocative compositions by the likes of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, this great album leads listeners on a wild journey through New Orleans' back streets, much like the arcane routes of the "Indians" themselves. The chanting and the drumming are there, along with the wail of the blues and an occasional contemporary touch of rap music. It all simmers together in a piquant New Orleans gumbo, as exemplified by the title track - a 1970s classic by The Band that is reinvented here in inimitable "Indian" fashion. Life is a carnival, indeed, and if you put this album on and crank it up, every day can be Mardi Gras!
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