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 compliment 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.
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 out 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 the 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 and 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-70's albums, The Wild Magnolias and They Call Us Wild (featuring the hit "Peacepipe" which the group re-recorded for Life Is A Carnival) which combined with 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.
Doillis 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,"
"Hero-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 a piquant New Orleans
gumbo, as exemplified by the title track - a '70s classic by The Bnad
that is reinvented here in inimitable "Indian" fashion. Life
is a Carnival, indeed, and if you attend this show, your life will be