One of the most unique gems of New Orleans culture is the Mardi Gras Indians, a stunning array of color and sound, born from local African-American heritage. Made famous by the HBO series “Treme,” the Mardi Gras Indians traditionally appear in public only two times per year—Mardi Gras and Super Sunday, the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day.
One of the Indians’ most well-known traditions is their music—a distinctive “gumbo” of percussion instruments and call-and-response vocals. Songs like “Jock-a-Mo,” “Trouble the Water” and “Indian Red” have shaped New Orleans’ music scene since the early 20th century, with greats such as Sugar Boy Crawford, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair and Dr. John all directly borrowing musical elements from Mardi Gras Indian songs.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the Indians on either of these dates, don’t despair! Today, more and more Mardi Gras Indian tribes give public performances year-round, showcasing their traditional music, often combined with some good ol’ New Orleans funk.
Check out our list of the top five Mardi Gras Indian musical figures, and get ready to get your funk on.
Headed by Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr. and, uniquely, Big Queen Rita Dollis, the uptown Wild Magnolias was one of the very first tribes to perform their music publicly in 1970. Since then, the Wild Magnolias gang has taken the world by storm, with the honor of performing for famous audiences such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and even the Queen of England!
Their funky tunes incorporate an eclectic range of instruments, from beer bottles, cans, snare drums, cymbals and, of course, some stunning vocals.
Their traditional chants include Iko Iko and Ho Na Nae.
When they’re not performing for royalty, you can usually find the Wild Magnolias at Handa Wanda, their famous Central City bar and headquarters, or at d.b.a. on Frenchmen.
Creole Wild West
Reportedly the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in existence, the Creole Wild West gang has been masking on Mardi Gras day since the 1800s. The gang is easily identifiable by its 100-pound suits and headpieces, made of jewel-toned feathers, sequins and trim.
Creole Wild West is headed by Big Chief Walter Cook and Big Queen Littdell “Queen B” Banister. The tribe’s musical performances are slightly more traditional and less “electric” sounding than the other Indian tribes on this list, featuring the tribe’s traditional chants and vocalizing front and center, accentuated by a few tambourines and drums in the background.
In addition to its annual Jazz Fest performance, Creole Wild West also plays at various community events around New Orleans and partners with many well-known groups, like the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Standard songs include “We Won’t Bow Down” and “Indian Red.”
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux
A legend, both locally and around the world, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux was originally part of the Wild Magnolias, before becoming Big Chief of the Golden Eagles as well as launching a larger-than-life solo career. Today, he is one of the most well-known Mardi Gras Indians who gives public performances, bringing the genre of Mardi Gras Indian funk to the world’s stage and making the traditional music more accessible to global listeners.
Big Chief Boudreaux has performed alongside the likes of Galactic, Anders Osborne and Papa Mali. Today, you’re most likely to spot him on stage with any one of his many musical projects, including The Wetland All-Stars, the star-studded group that brings together artists like Dr. John and Cyril Neville, the band Delta Funk and, also, the “heavy percussive Indian Funk” group the 101 Runners.
The 101 Runners isn’t exactly a Mardi Gras Indian tribe per se, but rather an all-star compilation of tribe members and talented musicians, who perform traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs—but with an electric, funky twist.
Local percussionist Chris Jones originally founded the group as part of the Maple Leaf Bar’s Krewe of O.A.K. party in 2007. According to Jones, the group’s name comes from an old legend of a local Mardi Gras Indian gang called the “101s,” formed by lone Indians who were “cast off” from the other tribes. Rather than spending the whole year sewing the famous suits, the 101s paraded down the street on Mardi Gras day without any of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian elements. Instead, they simply focused on the music, plain and simple.
In addition to Big Chief Boudreaux and Jones, the 101 Runners is usually made up of the Golden Comanches’ Isaac Kinchen and War Chief Juan Pardo, who typically sports his stunning suit on stage for concerts, as well as members from local groups Papa Grows Funk, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and others.
You can catch the 101 Runners performing their unique take on Indian classics, like “Let’s Go Get ‘Em” and “Injuns Here Dey Come” at all the big-name venues around town, from Tipitina’s to the Maple Leaf Bar.
One of the more recently formed tribes, the Wild Mohicans Mardi Gras Indian gang is a fantastic family troupe, made up of Big Chief Kentrell, Big Queen Zen, their seven children, who are all under the age of 15, and additional members, making the Mohicans a 14-member tribe.
The Wild Mohicans’ elaborate suits are constructed of what seems countless pounds of feathers, sequins and lace, a true labor of love. The Wild Mohican children are taught how to hand-sew their suits starting at age six, and the family considers the craft an integral part of their heritage and legacy.
The Wild Mohicans gang has traveled the world, even performing in far-off venues in Guatemala and Honduras. Look for them a little closer to home at festivals such as Freret Street Festival, Bayou Boogaloo, Jazz Fest and Soul Fest, to name a few.
All Photos by Susan Whelan