Early on a cloudless Sunday morning last February, the party at Le Bon Temps Roule in uptown New Orleans kicked into high gear as the Wild Magnolias launched into their first set of Mardi Gras classics. Revelers danced and knocked back Bloody Marys as they enjoyed the last few days of Carnival season with the legendary band that has fused two of the Crescent City’s cultural institutions—funk music and Mardi Gras Indian tradition—into a seamless whole.
Dressed in a black jacket with the words “Big Chief” embroidered on the lapel, bandleader and founder Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis smiled and made small talk with a growing group of neighbors and friends on the sidewalk. Since he was named Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias Indian tribe in 1964, the singer and percussionist has been one of the city’s leading voices of R&B-inflected funk and the century-old Afro-Caribbean call-andresponse style of Mardi Gras Indian music. While some band members over the years have also masked Indian (which means designing and creating a flamboyant new suit for Mardi Gras each year) with the Wild Magnolias, the band has had a rotating cast of musicians and Indians from other tribes, including Dollis’ childhood friend Monk Boudreaux (Big Chief of the Golden Eagles tribe), whose role in the Wild Mags has been almost as crucial. The spectacle of two of the city’s most popular Big Chiefs—often performing together in full costume with the likes of Snooks Eaglin, Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton or June Yamagishi—has influenced generations of players from the Meters to more contemporary bands like Papa Grows Funk.
“I love to mask Indian and that’s the bottom line,” the 63year-old Dollis told documentarian David Kunian last year in an interview. “Mardi Gras Indian is guys who have Indian blood. It’s something that the old people taught them and they do it today because they did it over a hundred years ago. It’s not just masking. It’s a feeling that runs deep inside.”
Dollis began masking Indian in 1957 when he was in high school, sneaking out to sew his costume and then pretending to go to a Mardi Gras parade the first group he joined in the street was the Golden Arrows. He soon moved on to the Wild Magnolias, who eventually offered him the highest position in the gang. Since the 19th century, neighborhood groups in New Orleans have spent long hours throughout the year hand-stitching intricately beaded and fantastically plumed costumes for themselvesand their hierarchy of Indians to wear on Mardi Gras. (The tradition goes back to when Native Americans befriended runaway slaves and freedmen.) On Fat Tuesday, certain streets and parks become gaming grounds where different Indian gangs meet, pitting costumes, music, moves and the ability of their “spy boys” against each other in a friendly but serious competition.
The Indians’ music—punctuated by the sounds of each enormous costume and its various clinking and swishing parts—is a heavily percussive derivation of Afro-Caribbean rhythms featuring intricate chants and prayers. Artists like Huey “Piano” Smith and “Sugarboy” Crawford occasionally incorporated pieces of chants into pop music in the ’50s. But in the ’60s, just before New Orleans funk had established a niche on the Top 40 charts, Dollis began blending that funk with the music he made as an Indian. The combination resulted in some of the most popular Mardi Gras songs ever committed to tape. And although bands like the Meters are responsible for putting such timeless songs as “Hey Pocky-A Way” on the airwaves, it was Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias whose first recordings captured the distinctive swamp-funk style of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
“What makes a good Mardi Gras song?” Dollis asked, repeating Kunian's question. “Funk.<