Thursday, February 22, 2007

Interview w/Mardi Gras Indian Monk Boudreaux

BackTalk with Monk Boudreaux

By Geraldine Wyckoff

Joseph “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles has been masking Indian since he was a teenager. His father, Raymond, was a member of the Creoles and the Wild Squatoolas Black Indian gangs, so even before Monk built his first suit, he was deeply entrenched in the culture. “I wouldn’t know what to do on Mardi Gras Day if I didn’t run with the Indians,” says the chief.

Boudreaux’s deep roots in the tradition have allowed him to step out into the entertainment world as a noted vocalist. The chief and the Golden Eagles released their first album, Lightning and Thunder in 1988, and he has gone on to record as a leader and with a wide variety of other artists and has performed around the world.

Widely respected among the Indian nation, the social aid and pleasure club community and the music world, Big Chief Monk stands as a link between people of many walks of life. Last year it was Boudreaux, along with Festival Production’s Quint Davis, who spearheaded the initiative to provide Mardi Gras Indians with much-needed materials to make new suits. With money from the Norman Dixon, Sr. Fund, he is at it again this year, making calls and organizing orders of feathers and plumes so that the Indians, who lost so much to Hurricane Katrina, can carry on the tradition.

So are you sewing?

Right now I’m doing some stuff for the second line on Sunday (January 7). I’m designing streamers and fans for the Perfect Gentlemen (Social Aid and Pleasure Club)—they come out this Sunday.

Do you often work for other clubs?

Oh, yeah, for various groups. I did the Young Men Olympian—the first division with the brown and orange. And I did two guys in the Young Men Olympian by themselves; they had light blue and beige.

I know other Mardi Gras Indians are involved with designing for the social aid and pleasure cubs. Big Chief Tootie Montana worked with the Sudan and the Black Men of Labor clubs. Have you done this throughout the years?

I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I used to parade with the Young Men Olympian about 30 years ago. I think I paraded with them for five years, and then I came back and paraded with them again about seven years ago.

So do you just design, or do you actually make the accessories?

They come to me and give me an idea and I sketch it up and they say, “Yeah, that’s what we want.” Some come to me and they don’t have an idea what they want. Sometimes they bring me the materials and I make the pieces, too.

Do you approach this any differently than when you’re creating an Indian suit?

It’s the same, they just don’t use the rhinestones and the beads, but they use the same material. You could take the bottom part of the streamers and use it as an apron. [Streamers are the sashes that drape across the front of the body—think Miss America sashes. At the bottom, they often widen and include the name of the club. An apron is the front flap of a Mardi Gras Indian suit.]

Do you make the baskets too?

Yeah, I’m making baskets for the Young Men Olympian for this year coming up. They don’t require baskets too much. It’s kind of expensive. Every time I came out, I came out with a basket and a fan.

What brass bands were parading when you were with the Young Men Olympian?

I remember Doc Paulin and the Olympia Brass Band.

How do you see the connection between the Mardi Gras Indians and the second line clubs? I think of it sort of as a shared street culture.

A lot of guys that parade mask Indian also, and a lot of them who parade have masked Indians. It’s the same people, you know, most of them. It’s the same followers. The people that follow Indians follow the second lines, too. They’ve both been out here about the same amount of time. My grandfather used to parade every third Sunday, but they didn’t have a band. They just marched down the street. This was probably in the late 1940s. I was a little kid. They used to march through the city. They had some ladies that dressed out in white and they, too, paraded without a band.

So let’s talk about the Mardi Gras Indians. Are you sewing on your suit?

Yeah, I’m beading on a patch. I’m adding to my suit from last year. I work on it during breaks at work—I parade with the second line band at Harrah’s.

You said something at last year’s Indian Sunday parade that stuck in my head. I mentioned to you that you always look comfortable in your suits and you said, “That’s because I tailor them.”

Yeah, I do. I measure myself across. And I always cut the material too big so I can take some off. If I want a jacket, I just cut it up and then pin it up and I try it on. I keep pinning it and trying it on until it fits and then I sew it up.

Do you think the apparent comfort level has something to do with your personal style of suits—the shorts and jacket? You always look great, but you also look like you can move.

That’s just my style; that’s the way I see it. You’re supposed to be able to move. Why make something you can’t walk in? You make an Indian suit to wear, right? If you can’t wear it, why make it?

You don’t go in for huge crowns either.

No, but I used to like on the Wild Magnolia album cover. You don’t need all of that. I don’t.

I know last year you were very involved with getting feathers to the Indians and that you’re doing it again this year. How is that going, and are there more Indians?

We’ve got our order in. We’re just waiting on them to come in.

There’s a lot more Indians, a lot more. We now have 159 Indians (that have signed up for feathers) and we would have had more except a lot of them didn’t know about it. Some of them are in Texas and I didn’t have any way to contact them. They’ve been calling and they’re still calling. Last year we had maybe close to 100.

I have to call the Indians up and find out their color. All of the plumes come from Africa but we really get them from New York—they have dye houses in New York—and then they’re shipped to Jefferson Variety, where we pick them up.

How many will be in your gang, the Golden Eagles?

Well, that’s something you never can tell. All the kids are going to be there. They’re my grandchildren, there’s six… seven of them. Their mama sews the suits.

I’m coming in gray and leaving from my house on Valence and Magnolia—you never know about the time. About 9 a.m. By the time I get down to Second and Dryades, Zulu will have passed already.

What is your biggest concern about the future of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition particularly with so many people now scattered across the country?

It don’t worry me because I know they’re going to be here. They’re going to come regardless of where they are. They’re going to be here for that day and they’re going to come with their Indians suits, too.

How about in the long run? It’s always been such a neighborhood activity and family activity.

It’s been going on for over 100 years, so they’re not going to stop no matter where they are. They’re going to go back to their neighborhoods regardless whether they’re living there or not. That’s where they’ll be leaving from. Somebody’s going to be in the neighborhood.

How long can they keep it going? I’m concerned about the future with kids growing up elsewhere and not having the tradition as a part of their daily lives.

That time has to come or might not come. We’ll have to wait and see. Everybody I talk to out of town is sewing. They can get the same materials out of town as we get here—and maybe cheaper.

Considering the financial burden it takes to make a suit, I thought that maybe some Indians might opt for smaller, less elaborate suits but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

See, the thing is you don’t do it all the time. You have a whole year to prepare. You just put a little bit on the side—and you pay your bills. Now, when it gets close to Mardi Gras you may not pay your light bill. A long time ago, Indians’ lights used to get cut off and we used to go help them get their lights back on. It’s a thing that has to be done. It’s not like you’re coming out of your pocket with $4,000 or $5,000 right off the bat. That’s why you start right after Mardi Gras. You spend as much money as you can afford. We don’t sit down and figure out how much we spent because that’s gone. No sense worrying about it because it’s gone. I don’t keep receipts.

I haven’t seen you listed much performing in the clubs with your group.

It’s been kind of slow. I have a gig next Saturday and I was out for New Year’s with Papa Mali and Galactic at Tip’s. I have a CD that’s supposed to be coming out that I recorded last year in California—I think it will be released at Jazz Fest. It’s with John Lisi and Delta Funk. I wrote almost all of the material for that. I’m creative—when I get into the studio, it just comes naturally for me.

A lot of Indians are singing about the storm in their chants.

They tell the stories of what they see and that’s what Indians songs are about—what goes on. So Hurricane Katrina came along and there they go; they’ve got a song. They pick up whatever and they go with it.

Music is music. I do Indian songs and other songs and it’s all how I feel. It’s still just a feeling.

What keeps the Indians going so strong despite all the hardships they are facing right now?

They were born with it—most of them. Like my dad did it before me and I followed his footsteps. My dad stopped masking after about 20 years and a man stayed across the street and I used to go watch him. It was already in me. His name was William Bell and he was with the White Eagles. The White Eagles was a big gang. I started out with the White Eagles with Big Chief Fletcher when I was a little boy.

You are always so optimistic. How do you account for that especially these days?

I guess I was just born that way. I don’t let nothing worry me. Because if people worry, they’re always going to take it out on somebody else. Worrying ain’t good for you.

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