Mr. Tambourine Men- Bo Dollis (left), Monk Boudreaux (right)
Bo Dollis interview
by Jason Gross (August 2000)
Taking the second line beat of New Orleans and turning it into a party on plastic, the Wild Magnolias Indian tribe (note: not Native-American but Mardi Gras Indians) take chunks of Big Easy musical history and churn it into a stew as appealing as a good bowl of gumbo- they quote and cover everyone from Huey 'Piano' Smith and Fats Domino to the Meters and Dr. John. Their call-and-response chants have the familar ring of gospel as they shout out their catch-phrases so much that they become funky mantras. The real miracle is that leader (Big Chief) Theodore 'Bo' Dollis and his tribe (group, if you like), including the inimitable Joseph 'Monk' Boudreaux, have kept the party going something fierce for a quarter century now after the fact- how many of you reading this can say the same thing? I sure as hell can't.
After a few lengthy breaks, the Magnolia tribe came back strong last year with Life Is A Carnvial (Metro Blue) and several national tours to spread the word that they were back in force. The show that I caught recently in New York at Central Park was only overshadowed by the amazing romp I witnessed them do (in full gear no less) at the New Orleans Jazz and Hertiage Festival last year.
I had the chance to talk to pow-wow with the Big Chief after their triumphant Central Park show along with their manager Glenn Gaines, who would get so jazzed up during the show that he'd come out to play tambourine and toss beads into the waiting audience.
PSF: Could you talk about how you started out playing music early on?
On carnival day, we used to have Indian practices. We would go to local bar rooms and rehearse in the late '60's, doing Mardi Gras tunes, singing "Mardi Gras Day." I met up with Quinton Davis, the guy who's in charge of the (New Orleans) Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was going to Tulane University at the time. He came to the Indian practice and he asked me to sing one of the carnival tunes for a 45. I told him that I'd try. So he put a band together called the New Orleans project with Willy Tee and a whole bunch of other great musicians.
So we went into the studio to do "Handa Wanda." It's something we still play today. After we did that, he had gotten us a contract with Barclay Records in France. That's how our whole career started.
PSF: Before you got the band together, what were you listening to that got you interested to make music yourself?
I used to listen to all types of music. There wasn't any one particular type of music I listened to. I would like listen to music from '30's and '40's like the New Orleans-type brass band music.
PSF: What was it about New Orleans that made up such a rich, constant flow of music that helped you start your career?
I wasn't really trying to become a part of the New Orleans music scene. I was just dressing as an Indian, enjoying myself. I'd been doing that since the late '50's. So, by the time I met up with Quinton, he just got me to do it more commercially. Before, we'd be walking up and down the streets in our costumes with tambourines, bass drums, conga drums. We'd just sing whatever would come out of our mouthes. We'd make up songs as we go.
PSF: How did you get involved in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe originally?
I got involved because of a neighbor. I was about nine-years-old and used to go and watch him prepare his Indian suit, sewing it up. So he'd ask me to help him with it. My momma caught me doing that and told me to go inside. I said 'I'll make me an Indian suit one day.' What he did was that he gave me an old Indian suit that he had. I redid it and changed this and changed that. Then, I started out as an Indian. By then, my momma was cool with it but my daddy didn't go along with that. He said that Indians used to fight.
There was a turf thing going on at that time. Downtown Indians couldn't come uptown. Back of town Indians couldn't come into other areas. They were really fighting. But when I started, all that ended. Instead, the way that they would compete is to see who had the best costume out there. It wasn't fighting anymore- it was more a challenge with the costumes.
PSF: Why did all of that change?
Well, I guess as time went on... to me, it didn't make any sense. Getting beat up just because you were from uptown. The younger Indians, they tried to change all that. A lot of the older Indians were dropping out, getting too old. (laughs) We used to walk around seven or eight miles, going uptown or downtown. So all the fighting stopped and we started with the songs, challenging each other with lyrics. That's how we challenge each other now. With music, who had the baddest drummer leading the second line.
PSF: When did you see this change?
I would say around... the late fifites. Around '57 or '58. You still had a few little squabbles but it wasn't a whole tribe doing it.
PSF: What can you say about another famous Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas? Any rivalry there?
I never had a rivalry with them. (George) Jolly used to be my second chief. What he did was that he can to me and said 'Bo, Jolly live way out front.' He used to manage me 'cause he didn't have a tribe. So he said he wanted to get a tribe where he was the chief. When he started out an Indian tribe, I used to go there and help him out. He had about 12 Indians out there. He started the Wild Tchoupitoulas, there wasn't any bad blood or anything. I love to see more Indians. The more Indians out there, the better Mardi Gras you have. It's not any fun being out there, not seeing other Indians around. You're there to show them your costume. But me and Jolly never fought. It was the Wild Magnolias, Wild Tchoupitoulas all the way around.
PSF: Most people from outside of New Orleans don't understand the make-up of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Could you talk about that? You have people like a Spy Boy and a Flag Boy in the tribes, for instance.
Spy Boy, what his job is... if you have a good Spy Boy, you can find any gang in the city. He knows just where they are. If you're on a bad street, you're going to miss them. Spy Boy is out looking for the tribes. Spy Boy pass a signal to the Flag Boy that a gang is coming. So the Flag Boy is supposed to relay that back to the Big Chief. It's up to the Chief to say 'Meet 'em' or 'Go another way.' But you never go another way. You always gotta send a signal that we're here. Spy Boy and Flag Boy have to meet and find these other gangs and doing all the serious walking around town to do that. You gotta be out there and you gotta be good. You have some Spy Boys that know just where they are. They can get 'em (the other gangs) from the middle or catch 'em from the back. Lot of gangs don't like to be cut from the back. Can't get all the Indians back in time to protect the Chief. Spy Boy is supposed to meet a chief but I don't let mine do that. I always to turn his gang around.
PSF: How does the Second Chief work with the First Chief?
You have First Chief, Second Chief, some have Third Chiefs. Some have a Trail Chief. A Trail Chief is the last Indian in the gang. What he do is he protects the Chief that's in front of him. If a gang coming behind him, he won't let that gang pass until his Chief turns them around. He prepares the Big Chief for the meeting. All them have things to do. The Second Chief meets the Second Chief of an opposite gang. Big Chief meet the Big Chief. We just to show our costumes though and try to be the best at what we do.
PSF: Speaking of that, what do you think makes up a good Indian costume?
The most important thing is probably how much time you can put into it and how much money you can put into it. It's who got the best rhinestones, who got the best crown, who got the best designs in the rear of their crowns, who made the perfect Indian suit. Everyone tries to make the perfect Indian suit. Some just outdo others.
PSF: You're also with another tribe called the Golden Eagles, right?
That's Monk. I don't record with them but we perform together. We came up together and put together a musical group. It had a few other guys with us that we put together to make the commercial side of it.
PSF: What do you see as differences?
My costumes might be more bigger than what Monk would have on for Mardi Gras. He'd been doing his costumes since back in the '50's and he always had more rhinestones on it. If you've ever seen my costume, you'd know it was bad though. In terms of size, he does his much smaller.
PSF: I saw the full costumes you have when you played at last year's Jazz and Heritage festival. They were amazing- these huge, elaborate dresses. I imagine that's pretty hard to take on tour, right?
My suit... It takes so much out of me when I try to do a gig with the whole costume on. It's real heavy and it's HOT! I can't perform in that all the time. So when we came out here to do a tour, I just decided to wear my regular clothes. But the other Indians on the stage wear theirs. Sometime, Monk don't wear his. It would get so hot and it would take a lot out of him. (laughs)
PSF: Are there any other Indian tribes you've seen that you've been really impressed with?
There a lot of tribes out there that I like. Creole Wild-dress, Cheyenne Hunters, Flaming Arrows. All of them, they represent. And I give all of them credit for doing this. The patience, the time and putting together their costumes for like two days.
PSF: What are planning to do after this tour?
We plan on going back into the studio to do a CD. And we're going to be travelling to Canada and Australia.
Glen Gaines: Magnolias will have a new single released in the next few weeks, a remix of "Smoke My Peacepipe." We're release other singles and going to go back to record a new record in December- hopefully, it won't take a year to do! Big Chief (Bo) was ready but we just wanted to compliment the first two records.
In New Orleans at one of the museums, they're going to have an exhibit celebrating the Magnolias. It's a monumental accomplishment so we're going to keep it going. At Carnival time, we're going to release a few tunes like "Mardi Gras Day" and "Jolly John." We've got a lot more mileage to go on it.
PSF: Have you seen any real changes with the Magnolias since you started the group?
No... there's no difference. We're still the same, we're just getting a bigger crowd. We're one of the largest second-lines.
Glenn Gaines: All the guys in the band tell me that Bo is the only guy who sings his songs in the same key as when he sang them in 1972. His voice has not changed in 30 years! That is amazing. That's why it took us so long to record. We do have another 10 or 12 songs in the can right now that we'll do some finishing touches on and have a whole album for next year. A good time to probably do it would be Mardi Gras time or during the Jazz Fest.
Also see some of Bo Dollis' favorite music
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