As a white Berklee College of Music graduate from Rhode Island, drummer Joe Gelini does not fit the typical Mardi Gras Indian profile. Historically, the music’s practitioners are black New Orleanians who learn the relevant rhythms from their elders and on the street.
But since moving to New Orleans more than a decade ago, Gelini has immersed himself in the culture. He apprenticed with two Mardi Gras Indian institutions, the Wild Magnolias and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Longtime Wild Magnolias bass drummer Norwood “Geechie” Johnson is a mentor and frequent collaborator.
Cha Wa, the Mardi Gras Indian band Gelini founded, is fronted by two vocalists with deep roots in the Indian community: Big Chief Irving “Honey” Banister of the Creole Wild West, and Monk Boudreaux’s grandson J’Wan Boudreaux, spyboy of the Golden Eagles.
On “Funk ’n’ Feathers,” Cha Wa’s new, debut album, Gelini, Banister, Boudreaux and their bandmates convincingly dig into standards from the Mardi Gras Indian canon. They’ll celebrate the new release Friday at the Blue Nile, augmented by guest guitarists Raja Kassis and Papa Mali.
“It’s about respecting the culture and the music,” Gelini says of his entrée into the Mardi Gras Indian community. “If you’re doing it for those reasons, they’re totally accepting — I would say extraordinarily accepting. There’s no color barrier at all. If you’re there to be part of it for the right reasons, it’s all good.”
Gelini started playing drums at 14. He went off to Berklee in Boston eager to be exposed to as many different types of music as possible. In January 1996, he accompanied his father to New Orleans for a convention. Gelini plunged into the local music scene, visiting the Maple Leaf, Le Bon Temps Roule, the Saturn Bar, Tipitina’s and the Mermaid Lounge.
“The audience was just as much a part of the party as the band was. The entire audience was involved, actively listening, dancing and partying. A seamless line went from the audience to the band. Playing in Connecticut, Boston and New York, I had never seen that before. I had never seen people in a city love the music and the culture that they were a part of so much. I was enthralled.”
On subsequent visits during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — he skipped finals at Berklee in favor of the festival — he heard the Wild Magnolias. The music was “on another level,” Gelini said. “It felt like a spiritual thing to me, and it still does.”
Back at Berklee, he delved into the Meters, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. His path was set. After graduation, he moved to New Orleans to be a musician.
He went right to the source — Handa Wanda’s, the Wild Magnolias’ traditional home at Second and Dryades in Central City. He met masters of Mardi Gras Indian music, who welcomed his interest. The first time he played drums with Monk Boudreaux, Gelini nervously asked if the tempo was correct. “He was like, ‘Ain’t no mistakes in Mardi Gras Indian drumming,’ ” Gelini recalled. In other words, “as long as it feels good, it’s cool.”
At Indian practices, “there was certainly a learning curve. I would be up there playing, and sometimes people would look at me with a bit of surprise, like, ‘Oh, he kind of sticks out.’
“But I was so serious about trying to do it the right way. People would go from a look of confusion, to their heads starting to bob. That personifies what it’s been like for me as a total outsider.”
In addition to working with Monk Boudreaux’s band, Gelini joined the Wild Magnolias toward the end of Bo Dollis’ performing life. Gelini produced and played drums on the 2013 release “A New Kind of Funk,” the first Wild Magnolias album to feature Bo’s son, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis, as bandleader.
By then, Gelini already had launched Cha Wa. After years of Indian practices, marching on Mardi Gras and Super Sunday, and playing sporadic gigs with other Indian bands, “I thought the natural next step was to try to put together my own group.”
The early incarnation of Cha Wa included guitarist Colin Lake and Monk’s brother, Yeti Boudreaux. Over the next five years, the roster evolved. J’Wan Boudreaux was only 17 when he joined Cha Wa. Honey Banister’s family history also runs deep: He is the son of Irving Banister Sr., the prolific New Orleans guitarist whose many credits include the original recording of “Jock-a-Mo.”
Cha Wa also generally includes John Fohl and Seizo Shibayama on guitar, Stephen Malinowski on organ, Yoshitaka Tsuji on piano and Devon Taylor on sousaphone and bass. “It’s developed into something that feels really right,” Gelini said. “It’s a very organic feeling when we get onstage. We find a place in the middle that everybody’s comfortable with so that it’s not too formulaic and not too chaotic.”
Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman produced “Funk ’n’ Feathers.” Ellman was a “great musical coach and a good motivational speaker, too,” Gelini said. Ellman crafted a contemporary production around Cha Wa’s traditional rhythm section of sousaphone and Indian and second-line beats.
For Gelini, it was important to establish Cha Wa’s bonafides with such traditional songs as “Injuns, Here They Come,” “Shallow Water,” “Ooh Na Nay” and “All on a Mardi Gras Day.”
“We didn’t want to stretch away from it too much because ... that’s what we’re good at and what we know. But also because we wanted to establish the basic sound and where the tradition comes from.
“It wouldn’t make much sense if we started to stretch out on our first release and overshoot what we were trying to establish as a freshman band.”
With Cha Wa, “when you stop thinking about how different each element is, it has a commonality. That’s what we’re all striving for.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.