Cha Wa is a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians band on the rise. Following the example of the late Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, the city’s famous, widely traveled Mardi Gras Indian musical troupe, Cha Wa has spent most of this year on the road. But this weekend the group has a hometown show, 4:15 p.m. Saturday at the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Cha Wa founder and drummer Joe Gelini said.
Cha Wa’s core members also include singers and Mardi Gras Indians Irving “Honey” Banister and J’Wan Boudreaux, plus organist Steve Malinowski.
Banister’s and Boudreaux’s roots stretch deeply into New Orleans music and Mardi Gras Indians history.
Banister’s father, Irving Banister Sr., played guitar with classic New Orleans rhythm-and-blues artists Danny White, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and Eddie Bo. Boudreaux’s grandfather, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, leads the Golden Eagles tribe and performs with the Wild Magnolias. The Magnolias are credited with the convergence of Indian chant and New Orleans funk and R&B.
“Honey” Banister toured with the Wild Magnolias for years, standing alongside Dollis.
“Honey credits Bo with inspiring him to have the energy it takes to put on a great show, no matter what the circumstances,” Gelini said. “I’ve seen Honey perform after having the flu, being sick, you name it. He always brings his A game.”
Cha Wa’s members range in age from 18 (Boudreaux) to the 20s, 30s and up to 50.
“We’ve got young fire,” Gelini said. “We’ve got people in their 30s who are starting to make their mark. We’ve got guys who are part of New Orleans musical royalty.”
A graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Gelini formed Cha Wa in 2010. He named the group after a Mardi Gras Indian phrase that translates to “We’re coming for ya!”
In the first three months of 2015, Cha Wa played several Carnival season shows and gigs in Shreveport, New Mexico, Memphis and, as opening act for the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s sold-out homecoming concert, Jacksonville, Florida.
On May 2, Cha Wa will make its fourth consecutive appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In July, it will perform at the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto.
“I feel so much gratitude for the opportunities that we have now and for the musicians we have in the group,” Gelini said.
Gelini’s father, a professional broadcaster, introduced him to New Orleans during the then-college student’s first winter break from Berklee.
“He said, ‘I want you get off the plane, jump in a cab and say, ‘Take me to Snug Harbor,’” Gelini recalled. “We went to see Ellis Marsalis play. And every night we went out to hear music. I was blown away. The thing that blew me away most was that the audiences were a part of the music. I went to the Maple Leaf Bar and saw people dancing with their entire souls. I had never experienced that before. I said, ‘This is the place where I want to be.’ ”
Gelini moved to New Orleans after graduating from Berklee. A performance with Monk Boudreaux introduced him to Indians music. He loved it. After studying classic Indian recordings, Gelini, taking Boudreaux’s advice, attended Indians practice at Handa Wanda’s on Dryades Street.
“It can be intimidating because it reaches a fever pitch,” Gelini said. “But all of these men were so welcoming to me, once they realized I was there to play and learn.”
Cha Wa singer “Honey” Banister holds court at Handa Wanda’s, leading practices.
“All of the singers get up and challenge each other,” Gelini said. “It’s the real deal.”
Meanwhile, Cha Wa plans to record its first studio album in May.
“We’ve been gigging and honing our skills,” Gelini said. “I was hesitant to release a record earlier, because I want to make something that represents the Indians and New Orleans culture and brings our generation’s voice to the table. I think we’re ready now.”