New Orleans band Cha Wa to open Jazz Aspen June Experience
IF YOU GO …
What: Cha Wa
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Aspen Art Museum
When: Thursday, June 20, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $35 and up
Tickets and more info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
The spirited New Orleans band Cha Wa will make its local debut tonight to mark the premiere of the reimagined Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience as the long-running annual music festival moves downtown with four days of music spread across small venues featuring bands running the spectrum from jazz to blues, funk and soul.
Cha Wa, Grammy-nominated for the 2018 album “Spyboy,” offers a similar mix of styles within itself. The band, which plays two sets on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum tonight, brings together the sounds of New Orleans funk, brass bands and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition with the spirit of the city’s street music and parade music.
“We base our sound off of what is essentially the street music culture of New Orleans, which includes second lines and Mardi Gras Indian parades and that really is the fabric of the city both culturally and musically,” drummer and band leader Joe Gelini said in a recent phone interview.
In terms of authenticity, it doesn’t get any more New Orleans than the Cha Wa personnel, including members of Mardi Gras Indian tribes and street bands. Singer J’Wan Boudreaux parades with the Young Man Olympians and is the grandson of the legendary Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, of the Golden Eagles and the Wild Magnolias. (Cha Wa takes its name from the Mardi Gras Indian slang for “coming for you.”)
Translating the sounds of the street to the stage can be tricky, especially pulling it out of New Orleans and into far-flung environments like Aspen. When it’s a fake, it’s easy to spot.
Gelini noted that he couldn’t call up a New York jazzman, or the best player in Colorado, and ask them to play in Cha Wa because its rhythms and sound and communication are based on its members lifelong experience in the New Orleans street music scene.
“It’s something that can’t be taught,” said Gelini, who learned the ropes playing percussion at Uptown Mardi Gras Indian practices. “You really have to be a part of it.”
The members of the band are a uniquely New Orleans brand of musician who play constantly. The two shows Thursday night in Aspen are a light load for many of them.
“I feel like they play 100 gigs a week,” Gelini said of his bandmates. “They’re playing second lines and weddings and funerals — so it’s something that’s ingrained in them.”
And yes, following the recent deaths of revered chef Leah Chase and musician Dr. John, members of Cha Wa were out in the streets playing the city-wide second lines mourning their losses and celebrating their lives.
While most of the band’s songs are dance and party oriented, they also often voice of protest in keeping with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which traces back to the unions of oppressed slaves and Native Americans.
“We dress up in the Indian suits to pay homage to the Native American Indians, because around the time of slavery, they were the first ones to take us in,” J’Wan Boudreaux says in the spoken word piece “J’Wan’s Story” on “Spyboy.”
Among the album’s scorchers is “Visible Means of Support,” featuring vocals by Monk Boudreax and recalling his experiences under the racist Jim Crow laws of the South in the 1950s and ’60s and police harassment.
“We wanted to start to feel more comfortable expressing our feelings about social injustice, being able to write protest songs in our own words,” Gelini said. “I think that we accomplished that. … This music is about freedom and about protest. We wanted to embody that tradition.”
The new album also includes one of the few studio recordings of “Hey Baby,” a song familiar to anyone who has been to New Orleans during Carnival season or to a second-line though it’s rarely been recorded.
“I think part of the magic of what we do in Cha Wa is that these worlds all collide and they do intersect with each other musically because that is what happens in New Orleans,” Gelini said.
The show opens the reimagined Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience tonight, beginning a four day, seven-venue downtown music festival with some 10-plus nightly performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s the first downtown offering for Junefest, which in recent years had been held in the Benedict Music Tent.
Thursday’s performances mark the band’s Aspen debut.
“It’s a bucket list show for us and we are excited to be sharing the stage with such amazing artists,” Gelini said.