New Orleans' Cha Wa Shares Mardi Gras Rallying Cry: Premiere

Erika Goldring
Cha Wa

New Orleans' Cha Wa is joining the list of bands from Black Sabbath to Bad Company to Motörhead and beyond that boast eponymous songs in their repertoire.

"Cha Wa," premiering exclusively below, is the kickoff track for the troupe's second album, Spyboy, which comes out April 27. Written by trombonist Joe Maize, it's been part of the group's repertoire, appropriately starting shows for more than a year as a statement of purpose and musical stake in the ground. "The term 'Cha Wa' basically means 'We're coming for you'," drummer and founder Joe Gelini tells Billboard. "It's a Mardi Gras Indian chant, what spyboys will say in the street when the tribes are approaching each other on Mardi Gras day. It's sort of our rallying cry; It's how we get our heads in the game on stage, like weapons blazing."

Cha Wa, the band, has an authentic claim to the phrase, of course; Four of its eight members are actual Mardi Gras Indians, and Gelini has a long association playing with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who guests on Spyboy. But with a lineup that's been together for about two years, the album finds Cha Wa expanding beyond that base and becoming what Gelini calls "even more New Orleans," incorporating more funk, brass and Second Line flavors.

"Revamping the group kind of spun us in a different direction," Gelini says. "We pivoted and switched from the blueprint of the original Wild Magnolias. We went from just being a Mardi Gras Indian band with a rhythm section to basically being a Mardi Gras Indian band with complete brass band instrumentation. Those are kind of the twin roots of New Orleans music that literally go back to the 19th century, before ragtime or jazz, even."

Spyboy also finds Cha Wa embracing political and social commentary, including "Visible Means Of Support" -- one of the two songs that feature Boudreaux -- and "Chapters," which reflects the observations of the group's 21-year-old lead singer Spyboy J'Wan Boudreaux.

"We inevitably came up with a lot of social messages on the record because that's what's been happening in our lives for a long time -- certainly in the last couple of years with the way the world's been changing," Gelini explains. "The guys in the band are mostly African-American, and it's been such an honor to share my journey with them to see what they go through on a daily basis, the prejudices they encounter. It's really opened my eyes to being able to have some sort of level of protest songs in our work, because that's what we talk about. That's what we experience."

Cha Wa will celebrate Spyboy's release with an April 28 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival before heading out for a tour that will keep the group on the road throughout the summer. "I think our philosophy is we're in the action business, not in the results business," Gelini says. "We put everything we had -- emotionally, physically, financially, every blood, sweat and tear -- into this recording, into making it as great as possible. I think it's a really good representation of all of us, and I feel like no matter what happens, if I never made another record in my life, this would be a great representation of what my life has been for the last few years, and I'm proud of that."