Earbuds in, wearing dark shades and a black sweatshirt, J'Wan Boudreaux looks like a typical 21-year-old. He walks uncertainly toward us across Dreyfous Avenue in New Orleans City Park and introduces himself in a quiet, polite voice. I confirm we're going to take pictures first, and he returns to the car to change.
Minutes later, he swaggers toward us a different man. Dressed in vibrant red and green plumage, the sun glinting off hundreds of tiny, delicate beads in a rainbow of colors and a tambourine in his hand, we now are in the presence of the Spy Boy of the Golden Eagles Indian tribe, a group hailing from Uptown's 13th Ward and helmed by Big Chief Joseph Pierre "Monk" Boudreaux, J'Wan's grandfather, who's been masking since 1966.
J'Wan explains that the Spy Boy leads the way on parade days, directing the traffic of the tribe, while the Big Chief makes the call on whether other tribes they encounter are friends or foes. Super Sunday and St. Joseph's Night revelries are the most important dates on the calendar for Mardi Gras Indians, bringing out nearly all of the city's 40-plus tribes.
"Cha wa" ("we're coming for you") is the cry of the Indians as they acknowledge each other. As tribes meet, members show off their costumes or "suits," some of which take years to make. J'Wan has already started his suit for next year; he already has 19 suits, four of which he made himself without any formal training other than watching his grandfather painstakingly sew his own.
"That's the whole point of the Mardi Gras Indians," J'wan says. "You feel like your suit is better than his, he feels like his suit is better than yours. The saying is, 'Won't bow down,' so you're never going to just say, 'You know what, your suit is prettier than mine.'"
J'Wan has been in the band Cha Wa through four years, two lead singers, the sudden death of the band's piano player and globe-encompassing album tours. After the first lead singer left, J'Wan felt he had to fill the role. He sometimes does double duty, playing the tambourine or the timbales. Cha Wa will release its second album on April 12.
"You're not just going to hear Mardi Gras Indian music," he says. "You have brass band members ... and Indians in the band. The guitar player likes funk so you're going to hear some funk music. The drummer is all-around and I'm versatile, too. ... So, when those types of connections come together, it's powerful. ... The first album was like, 'What can we do?' Now this album is like, 'This is Cha Wa.'"
J'Wan believes cultivating younger members is the key to continuing the band and his Indian heritage. As for the tribe, the Golden Eagles welcomed its youngest member this year: his 2-year-old cousin.
"She likes it," he says. "The first day she came by the house to be fitted for (her costume), she grabbed a tambourine and ever since then it's been her tambourine. So, she's already experienced it this year — she had her little face painted and she was ready."
Tambourine — "It was a 21st birthday gift. ... My grandpa's favorite saying is, 'Never leave your tambourine,' so now I have two."
Illuminated quote — "This was a project I did in high school — I was always really into art."
Stephen John Malinowski's obituary — "Steve was the piano player (in Cha Wa). He was such a talented, humble person."
Photo of Monk Boudreaux — "I love the person I'm becoming, but that's who I look up to."
Hatchet with engraving of a gold eagle and Ralph Lauren Polo Black cologne
Favorite restaurant: "Seither's Seafood. Tell them J'Wan sent you."
Pet: "My 'daughter,' a blue iguana named Jace'e."
Alternate career: "Band director at my high school, Sophie B. Wright."
Raising Cane's or Popeyes? "Cane's — I can eat that two times a day."
Audubon Park or City Park? "Audubon — I like that jogging path."