Last weekend, five Mardi Gras Indian gangs led a parade in honor of the late Bo Dollis, Big Chief of The Wild Magnolias.
Dollis did as much as anyone to introduce Mardi Gras Indian culture to the world outside the gangs’ neighborhoods. He recorded the first single, appeared on “Saturday Night Live” with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, and in 1970 he and Boudreaux led one of the first Mardi Gras Indian parades outside their neighborhoods en route to the first Jazz Fest in Congo Square.
Now, Mardi Gras Indians are a central image in New Orleans’ iconography as evidence of the city’s deep idiosyncrasy and commitment to tradition.
One was a central figure in HBO’s “Treme,” so you’d think they had largely been demystified. Then you see them and realize again how inexplicable they are.
The Jazz and Heritage Stage is the Jazz Fest home for Mardi Gras Indians, with more gangs playing than anyone knew existed. They all play similar sets with subtle differences, but it becomes clear as they perform that unexpected values dictate how they play.
When the White Cloud Hunters took the stage Friday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, they did so with little spectacle. While some gangs filled the stage with feathers and suits, the White Cloud Hunters had three children masking Indian along with Big Chief Little Charles Taylor, who was resplendent in orange.
But many of the performers were in street clothes. That’s not uncommon, and as with the children, something’s being signaled. It’s just not clear what.
Dollis and Boudreaux presented shows with their gangs — Monk Boudreaux still does — that were so professional that you could forget that Mardi Gras Indians really are a folklife expression.
Taylor’s voice and those of the others onstage were beautifully untrained, all intensity and personality. The combination of seven tambourines and three bass drums gave the vocalists room and a pretty strong push, but really, the White Cloud Hunters made the set of canonical Indian songs theirs simply because they did them.
Their set was a reminder of what Mardi Gras Indians were like before a showman like Dollis, and what the real baseline is for Mardi Gras Indians’ performance.