Among the many Mardi Gras "Indians" in New Orleans, The Wild Magnolias are well-known for their talent and flamboyance. Mardi Gras "Indians" are not, by the way, Native Americans. The Mardi Gras Indians are 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 headdresses.
The origins of this tradition, which has striking parallels in the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad, have yet to be conclusively documented. The "Indian" tradition is also cited as another instance of New OrleansÆ status as the northern frontier of Caribbean culture. African, Creole, Indian and Spanish roots have been suggested, and some synthesis of all these sources seems likely. This is also true of the meanings and etymologies of the chants. The original words and context are difficult to trace, but today the function is assertive peer-group bonding.
Big Chief Theodore Emile "Bo" Dollis was born in New Orleans in 1944. As a child he followed a tribe known as the White Eagles, and he began "masking" as a Mardi Gras "Indian" in 1957 as a member of the Golden Arrows. In 1964 Dollis became the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias. In 1970 the Wild Magnolias recorded a single entitled Handa Wanda for the Crescent City label; nearly 30 years later Handa Wanda remains a local favorite and a perennial Mardi Gras classic. Two albums were produced in the mid-'70s, The Wild Magnolias and They Call Us Wild, on Rounder Records. Life is a Carnival marked their debut on the Metro Blue label.
Joseph Pierre "Monk" Boudreaux was born in New Orleans in 1941. He has "masked Indian" since the late 1950s, and collaborated with Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias since the mid-'70s. Boudreaux is exclusively featured on Lightning and Thunder: The Golden Eagles Recorded Live and in Context at the H& R Bar, New Orleans, a 1988 release on Rounder. Dollis and Boudreaux continue to revel in their culture, music, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and splendid costumes, just as they have done for decades.
The Mardi Gras Indians perform a music program rooted in African and Native American tradition.