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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-routed 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 exceeded 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 were 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 head dresses. The spy boys mentioned in Sugar Boy Crawford’s song, Jock-A-Mo, 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, Creols, Indian, and Spanish roots have been suggested, and some synthesis of all these sources seems likely. This is also ture of the meanings and the etymologies of the chants themselves. The original words and contest 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 anothe instance of New Orleans’ status as the norther 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 liited to Mardi Gras Day. In addition, the tradition is influenceing other musical genres. One striking manifestation is the fac 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. As a child he followed a tribe known as the White Eagles, and he began masking as a Mardi Gras Indian around 1960; as a member of the Golden Arrows. In 1964 Dollis became 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 ipresario, Quint Davis producing; nearly 30 years later, Handa Wanda remains a local favorite and a perennial Mardi Gras Classic.
The Wild Magnolis’ international reputation was enhanced with two mid-70’s albums, The Wild Magnolias (featuring the hit Smoke my Peace Pipe which the group recorded a different version for Life Is A Carnival) and They Call Us Wild 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 iportance in New Orleans’ cultural scene, as does their Metro Blue/Capital Records debut, Life Is A Carnival.