By Jeff Maisey
This year’s Bayou Bon Vivant Festival featuring Cajun cuisine like crawfish and jambalaya, folk art from souther Louisiana, and live music equal in caliber to the famous New Orleans Jazz Festival will be one to remember.
Entertainers such as Blues Traveler, North Mississippi All=Stars, and Anders Osborne are big-time names most music fans know, but perhaps one of the most authentic sounds of New Orleans will be heard from Cha Wa, an exciting group of musicians who tap into the soul of Crescent City’s blues, funk, and rhythmic Mardi Gras Indian vibes.
Cha Wa bring the beats, the heavy kick-ass brass, funky bass lines, charismatic vocalists. Songs like “My People,” “Wildman,” and “Jock-A-Mo” sonically illustrate why the group was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category.
Audiences will have two opportunities to check out this intriguing band during the Bayou Bon Vivant at Town Point Park in downtown Norfolk: Saturday night at 7:15 PM on the Crescent City stage and 12:30 PM Sunday on the Main Stage.
To learn more about the band and its origins, I called Cha Wa founder/percussionist Joe Gelini.
VEER: When did you learn about the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians?
Joe Gelini: I was at Berklee College of Music in 1995 and I had a chance encounter with seeing a famous drummer from New Orleans named Idris Mohammad. He was playing with John Scofield at the time.
It was the first time I had heard an old school New Orleans drummer play. I went up to him after the show and asked if I could take a lesson from him. He was so kind. I took a two-hour lesson with him.
He said he was playing the tom-tom parts like the Mardi Gras Indians and he was playing the bass drum like the brass band drummers play. Then is said, “You got to get to New Orleans so you can hear the Mardi Gras Indians play.”
That was in ’95, so it was before you could really research that stuff online.
I had listened to a lot of the Meters, The Neville Brothers, and Dr. John. Those recordings were heavily influenced by Mardi Gras Indian music. Then I got a chance to hang out with Mardi Gras Indians and learn from that.
My mission is that I want people to be as blown away by seeing and hearing Mardi Gras Indian music and culture as I was when I first experienced it.
It’s probably some of the earliest American music, and it goes back to the pre-Civil War era. You can hear it in all the different music from ragtime to jazz to early rock ’n’ roll and funk in the ‘70s.
VEER: New Orleans is a great cultural jambalaya. What makes the Big Easy that special place in America where such an interesting blend of music, food and style blend together so well? It’s unlike any other place in America.
Joe Gelini: It is, and it is the cradle of American music.
It was the first place slaves (from Africa) were allowed to practice their customs and religions in the Americas.
There’s just something about the music in New Orleans that’s very indicative of the culture. We live in a swamp that’s filled with concrete so it’s incredibly humid. The food is hot and delicious. So there’s like a relaxed feeling to it. You can’t be in a rush in New Orleans in the summertime. You’ve seen the iconic images of people bringing umbrellas in the summertime parade. Well, they’re not doing that because it’s raining; they’re doing that because it’s so hot.
A lot of that comes from the African influence because after the Civil war, back in the day, Black people were playing marches. They were popular at the time, like John Philip Sousa. The (New Orleans) brass players and percussionists were taking adding that African influence and making everything swing.
In New Orleans, everything’s just thrown in the mix. Everything has this incredible feel to it.
VEER: The music of Cha Wa seems heaviest influenced by funk from the 1970s. What were the most influential bands of that era on your music?
Joe Gelini: I would definitely say The Meters. That’s probably the biggest influence from the funk music of the ‘70s. The Meters were from New Orleans and started by Aaron Neville.
There were other New Orleans bands — Dr. John. Bands like the Wild Magnolias. They were the first Mardi Gras Indian band that played with a rhythm section. That was backed up by Willie Tee & The Gaturs.
All of those bands were central and pivotal in influencing New Orleans musicians then and now.
VEER: Cha Wa is carrying those traditions of New Orleans music culture forward. Are there other up-and-coming bands doing the same?
Joe Gelini: Ummm, yeah.
Music chose me. It’s not like I had an option to do it or not.
Something that is unique about New Orleans is that you have families that are only a handful of generations removed from the cradle of jazz music and ragtime music. Each generation gets trained (by the previous).
My daughter has been watching me play gigs since she was a year old. There’s that environmental learning that happens. There’s a lot of importance put on learning traditional New Orleans music. It gets passed on from generation to generation.
Each generation puts their own spin on it.
VEER: The song “My People” has a great, uplifting melody and lyrics. How did that song come together?
Joe Gelini: The trumpet player and keyboard player wrote that song and obviously did a fantastic job.
It represented what was happening at the time in 2020. It was very relevant.
As songwriters in general, we try to take what’s happening in our lives and turn it into a song.
Bayou Bon Vivant
Friday, May 19
3:30 PM: Amanda Shaw
6 PM: Honey Island Swamp Band
8:30 PM: Blues Traveler
Crescent City Stage
2 PM: Hot Gumbo Brass Band
5 PM: The Rumble
7:30 PM: Big Sam’s Funk Nation
Saturday, May 20
3:45 PM: Bonerama
6 PM: Big Sam’s Funk Nation
8:30 PM: Anders Osborne
Crescent City Stage
1 PM: Erica Falls
2:30 PM: Eric Johanson
5 PM: Geno Delafose
7:15 PM: Cha Wa
Sunday, May 21
12:30 PM: Cha Wa
2:15 PM: Kings of Brass
4:30 PM: North Mississippi Allstars
Crescent City Stage
1:30 & 3:30: Terrance Simien