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New Orleans funk band Cha Wa is coming down under

Cha Wa lead singer J’Wan Boudreaux. Photo/Erika Goldring/Supplied

With funk and flamboyance, Cha Wa are keeping alive an important slice of US history: the Mardi Gras Indians.

Out of the great gumbo bowl of New Orleans’ musical influences has emerged something wonderful: Cha Wa.

The visiting group’s second album, Spyboy, earnt them a nomination at this year’s Grammys for its mix of Mardi Gras flamboyance, brassy grooves, Native American chants and political messages.

But as well as the afro-beat, reggae, Sly and the Family Stone-style funk and street music that they’re bringing to New Zealand, Cha Wa are also keeping alive an important slice of US history: the Mardi Gras Indians, who have been parading in New Orleans since at least the mid-19th century.

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Cha Wa lead singer J’Wan Boudreaux, 22, is of Afro-American, Cherokee and Choctaw descent, and his grandfather, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who makes a cameo appearance on the album, is leader of the Golden Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe.

Each year, J’Wan makes a handsewn feathered and beaded “Masking Indian” suit, but his stage outfits are about more than just standing out from the crowd.

“It’s paying homage to their Native American ancestors, who took in escaped slaves during the years of slavery in the South, protected them and then intermarried with them,” says Cha Wa founder and drummer Joe Gelini.

Spyboy’s songs have the same mix of sparkle and substance. On Visible Means of Support, Monk Boudreaux recalls vagrancy laws that would have landed him in jail if he couldn’t produce a payslip. And J’Wan’s Chapters brings social commentary up to date with its chorus-groove of “you don’t know about me, you can only tell people what you see”.

“Because of the influence of New Orleans street culture, most people understand Cha Wa as dance music – and we certainly celebrate life,” Gelini says. “But songs of freedom are the essence of Mardi Gras Indian music, so we also have a socially conscious message, and I hope people will leave asking themselves important questions.”

Cha Wa appear at Titirangi’s Festival of Music on March 28, and Wellington’s CubaDupa on March 30 and 31.

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.