“We just wanted to touch the people who mask Indian. You know? The people who are sitting down sewing those suits, man. The people who are making that financial sacrifice every year to keep this culture going.”
Jermaine Bossier is the Big Chief of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian gang in New Orleans. “Masking,” as they say down in the Crescent City, is the Indians’ act of stepping out on Mardi Gras Morning in vibrant, three-dimensional feathered and beaded suits. Most of these elaborate, annually-constructed designs take months of intense sewing and thousands of hard-earned dollars to create. Though still in his 30s, Bossier speaks about this colorful and mysterious culture with an old timer’s knowledge and respect; a deep understanding of the Black traditions, individuals, and communities that have paid tribute to the fortitude of the Native American Indians since Armstrong Park was Congo Plains. Masking is in blood. His uncle was Big Chief of the Black Eagles, a gang from the Uptown Calliope projects, and Bossier joined the fabled Yellow Pocahontas when he was only 14.
Music is also in Bossier’s genes. His grandfather, Raymond Lewis, played bass in Huey P. Smith’s band, the Clowns. He also wrote and performed the 1962 hit, “I’m Gonna Put Some Hurt on You,” which has been recorded by the likes of Alvin Robinson and the Meters. It was music that brought Bossier together with a longtime Indian foe, Romeo Bougere, Big Chief of the 9th Ward Hunters, to form the 79rs Gang. (Bougere also comes from a family steeped in the Mardi Gras Indian culture. His father Rudy, was a legendary Big Chief.) Their debut, Fire on the Bayou, was created, as Bossier puts it, because they “just wanted to make something that the Indians could sew to.” Thankfully, Sinking City Records, run by two disc jockeys at WWOZ, picked up the album for a wider release back in March of last year.
The music of Mardi Gras Indians has been beautifully documented by the likes of Alan Lomax and Les Blank, and most recently depicted by David Simon’s HBO Series, Treme. Blank’s 1978 documentary, Always for Pleasure, captures a live performance of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a gang whose eponymous debut was produced by Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint, and included the musical efforts of the Neville Brothers and the Meters. The album wasn’t the first time Indian songs had been recorded for commercial release. The Wild Magnolias put out a single, “Handa Wanda,” in 1970, and couple of fantastic LPs and 45s in the mid 70s. Those projects were also the fruits of two Big Chiefs, Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis of the Wild Magnolias and Joseph Pierre “Monk” Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, coming together to make music.
Fire On the Bayou finds Bossier and Bougere singing a mix of Mardi Gras Indian standards and 79rs originals over sparse, traditional polyrhythms. The gang channel an energy similar to the humid exuberance that radiates from the Golden Eagles classic Rounder release, Thunder and Lightning, which was taped “Live in Context” in 1987 at the legendary H & R Bar on Dryades Street. (Three songs on that record, including Boudreaux’s original, “Shallow Water,” are included on Fire on the Bayou.) Intentionally or not, there are moments when Fire sounds like it could have been tracked on the same hot August night, or perhaps under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge on a brisk Mardi Gras morning. The album also nicely showcases Bossier’s rough Baritone and Bougere’s honeyed, Neville-esque, Alto vocals, which coupled with their knack for telling stories, evokes imagery as vibrant as the suits they don on the LP cover.
It’s no surprise that global DJ Gilles Peterson tapped the 79rs Gang for his 2016 Worldwide Music Awards show. We look forward to hearing much, much more music from Jermaine Bossier and Romeo Bougere as they carry on the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians.
“As long as New Orleans is here,” Bossier says, “I feel like Mardi Gras Indians are going to be here.”
Aquarium Drunkard: You were raised within the culture of Mardi Gras Indians. Your Uncle was a Big Chief. What sort of impact did that have on you as a child?
Jermaine Bossier: As a child? Just seeing those Indians is an amazing sight. I could just remember my mamma taking me to see the Indians and telling me that this one person was the “Big Chief.” And he was just beautiful, man. He had on all these feathers. He was just beautiful. And, you know, it was always something that I wanted to do, but at the time, in the early ‘80s, it was still at little wild. They would do a lot of shooting and so I wasn’t ever able to mask. I was just an observer for a long time. But I always wanted to mask, man. I always wanted to mask, you know? It had a really big impact on me.
AD: And your grandfather was Raymond Lewis?
Jermaine Bossier: Yes. I don’t know if you ever heard the Meters sing the song, “I’m Gonna Put Some Hurt on You.” That’s my grandfather’s song. My grandfather sang that song in the 60s. He was real big in his time. He played at the Dew Drop Inn. Cyril Neville–he raised Cyrille Neville. I even think my grandfather helped Allen Toussaint learn how to play the piano. My grandfather, he’s a real big figure in the city. His mother’s name was Antoinette Bossier. She’s from South Vacherie, near Edgard, Louisiana. All of the Bossiers that are from that area are my family.
AD: So obviously music was a big part of your life growing up, too.
Jermaine Bossier: Yeah. My daddy, he had a band in the late 70s, early 80s called the Soul Dimensions. They did alright. I don’t think his career was as big as my grandfather, but I’ve always been around music, man. Music has always been in my family. My mama had me in the choir when I was young. I was in the junior choir at a church across the canal called Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church. It was Apostle Arthel Thomas, Sr. That church was always full of music. Always full of music. So, I grew up around music. I grew up listening to all kinds of music.
AD: And you started masking when you were 14?
Jermaine Bossier: Yes, with the Yellow Pocahontas.
AD: What were your responsibilities like at that age?
Jermaine Bossier: I mean at 14, you’re just really–I was a Spy Boy, but at that age you’re really just an Indian, you know? At 14, it was my first time masking, so I was really just an Indian. I had a title but it was like I really didn’t have a title. You know what I’m saying? Because I was so young, man. When you I started, Yellow Pocahontas had a lot of old timers masking with them. So you would really just watch the old timers. You didn’t really have a lot of responsibilities. When they had a child that was your age, the old timer would come and get you and let you meet that child. But for the most part, at that time, it was Spy Boy Greg Sellers. He was the one taking care of the front. You had Bubble Gump, cats like that. All those old cats, man.
AD: Then you served a variety of roles in a variety of gangs before you started your own gang in 2009?
Jermaine Bossier: Yeah, well, after the Yellow Pocahontas, man, the guy who was running Trail Chief for the Yellow Pocahontas, his name was Emmanuel Hingle, he started his own gang called the Trouble Nation Mardi Gras Indian gang. And I went with him. Emmanuel was like 19, 18, and we were a fairly young group of guys. It was a lot of young people. Like I said with the Yellow Pocahontas, it was a lot of the older cats. But with Emmanuel, he kinda let me get my shine on a little bit more than what I was doing with the Yellow Pocahontas. So we decided to go with Trouble Nations. Emmanuel started his own gang. But Emmanuel ended up dying. He drowned in a pool in 1999.
Before Emmanuel passed away, our Wild Man, Joseph Ducroux, we called him Mook, he passed away. Right after he died, like three months later, Emmanuel died. The guy who was running Flag Boy, Gang Flag, at the time was Markeith Tero. That was Emmanuel’s best friend. He and Emmanuel were real, real tight. Markeith Tero became the Chief of Trouble Nations. And we just kept the Trouble Nation name going for a long, long time. Markeith, he kind of stopped masking a little bit. He kind of started dealing with the Second Line clubs and stuff like that, so I just asked him. I went to my Chief and got his approval to start my own gang.
I talked to him and I talked to this guy named Jerome Smith. We called him “Big Duck.” He’s a real big community activist down here in this city, man. He’s well known in the Treme neighborhood. The Treme Center – he got that started. Hunter’s Field and all that. So I went at Big Duck and I went at Markeith and they both gave me the approval. And I started 7th Ward Creole Hunters. We’ve been masking since 2009.
AD: Was that difficult to go out on your own or was it easier since you had their approval?
Jermaine Bossier: I mean, your Chief can approve it but you still have to earn your respect. Everybody just can’t be a Chief, man. You can’t just come out and say that, “I’m a Chief,” just bec
ause you masked before. You have to really earn your respect, because this is a warrior culture. It’s about being pretty at times, but sometimes things can get kind of physical. You have to be able to stand your ground. You have to be able to demand respect. You have to be able to get your respect. And at the same time, give respect. And be a leader, you know? People have to see you as a leader. You know what I’m saying?
You have to have other…I mean, most Chiefs, most Chiefs–it’s not that person saying they want to become a Chief, it’s the rest of the people, the rest of the gang that surrounds them. Their gang members are the ones that are telling them, “I think you should be the Chief. It’s time for you to start your own gang.” That’s when you go in to get your permission to start your own gang.
You have to have respect in the streets. You have to be able to bring your gang anywhere in the city. Uptown. Downtown. Across the canal. Front of town. Back of town. You have to be able to do all those things. It’s not just something you can do like that.
AD: I read that when Romeo was starting out, that it took him a long time to be accepted as a Chief because he was so young.
Jermaine Bossier: Yeah, man. It was kind of different for him because his father masked. His father died. So he became the Chief of his father’s tribe. But at the same time, they had another guy who was running Second Chief for his Daddy. People felt like that guy who was running Second Chief should be the Big Chief. But this is a family thing, man. This is something you pass on. Something you can hand to your kids. A lot of Chiefs right now are Chief because their father was the Chief. Sometimes when you’re young like that, it’s hard to get respect from other older Chiefs. You know what I’m saying? Because they feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. And sometimes it can get kind of hectic. People can try to run over you because they feel like you’re not a Chief.
He did have a hard time in the beginning. Me and Romeo, we used to go at each other’s hats all the time. We weren’t the best of friends at one point in time. I can say Romeo came a long way. He’s one of the best Chiefs out there, as far as his sewing and his singing. He really stepped his game up. He built that game by himself.
AD: How long have y’all known one one another? I guess you’ve probably known about each other for a long time.
Jermaine Bossier: Well, to be honest with you, man, I’m a few years older than Romeo. I’m maybe three years older than Romeo. I kind of met Romeo when he was–Romeo had to be maybe, 17. He had been coming around, but he was still kind of young and so he wasn’t really coming to a lot of Indian practices and stuff like that. But once he came around–I guess when you’re young, man, you see the other young person that’s hot. You see the other young person that everybody’s kind of talking about. Because it was really only a few young people out here that really had a name like that. You know what I’m saying?
So when Romeo came along, he was making a name for himself and I was making a name for myself. We just always seemed to bump heads. Like I said, man, sometimes things can get kind of physical. There have been situations where we had weapons drawn. People were swinging hatchets and machetes and all this kind of stuff, man. But at the end, like I said, we just sat down and decided to make some music and just stop all of the foolishness with each other. You know what I’m saying? We just decided to come together and try to make something beautiful.
AD: That was my next question, actually. I read you said you signed a peace treaty. Was that coming together specifically to make a record or was that just a natural progression of y’all’s relationship?
Jermaine Bossier: To be honest with you, it was really to make a record.That’s what really brought us together. The music. We sat down and we both realized that we have respect for each other. I had respect for him. He had respect for me. It was just that we both were two young guys that just wanted a name. And you know how that can be. You have old timers looking at you, man. You want your respect from the older guys, so you’re acting kind of humbuggish or whatever. Just doing crazy stuff. That’s how it was with me and Romeo, man.
We just sat down one day. Actually, we went to a park. We went to a park, we sat down, and we just talked. We just talked about it. And we just shook hands, man. And we came to an agreement that we were going to just be cool from that point on, man. But like I said, the music is really what brought us together. If it hadn’t been for the music, we probably wouldn’t be where we are right now as far as our personal relationship with each other, you know? I mean, that’s my partner, man. We done got cool right now. You know what I’m saying? It’s 79rs Gang all the way with me. It’s gang, gang, gang with me. I mean, that’s my partner, man. That’s my partner.
AD: So how long ago was that when y’all came together to make an agreement and decide to make a record?
Jermaine Bossier: 2013. We had bar fights, man. Big ol’ bar fights. We done been in St. Roch Tavern and had a big ol’ brawl. You know what I mean? My gang against people from his gang and people from another gang. So, we just had to sit down, man. And like I said, he considers himself to be the best singer in the city and I consider myself to be the best singer in the city. And I do feel like that we are the two best singers in the city. I don’t feel like nobody could beat me and Romeo don’t feel like nobody could beat him. So we just came together and made some music, man.
AD: Right. And when and where did y’all record the album?
Jermaine Bossier: We recorded the record in 2013 right before Jazz Fest. The New Orleans Jazz Fest. It was underground. We were just selling it to other Mardi Gras Indians at the time, man. And we brought it down to WWOZ and the guys from Sinking City Records. They liked what we was doing so they decided to pick the project up and now it’s in stores and we’re about to go to London in January.
AD: I noticed that a handful of the songs are traditional songs, or at least based on traditional songs, and the other songs I didn’t know – not to say they aren’t also traditional…
Jermaine Bossier: They aren’t traditional. But I’m sorry, go ahead with your question.
AD: No worries. With those songs, were they written before or were some of the lyrics improvised when you were in the studio?
Jermaine Bossier: The song, “Drama,” the hook, the call and response that we do, I came up with that maybe two days before we went in the studio. “Roll Call” — I came up with that maybe two days before we went in the studio and the Funga Alafiyah, you know, that’s a phrase that’s already used in Africa. I just took that phrase and put it with the song [singing] “Oh little Liza, little Liza Jane.” What’s the word? [Singing] “Fungah Alafiyah, Ashay Ashay.”
But the verses, the actual verses, the lyrics–everything is improvised. Everything is like, off the head, you know? Everything is just going in the studio, hearing a hook…laying the hook down, laying the track down, and just singing off our head, man. That’s why I said he considers himself to be the best singer in the city and I consider myself to be the best singer in the city. I don’t think that Romeo can sing better than me and Romeo don’t think that I can sing better than him, so why not come together man and make this work, you know?
AD: I think it definitely works. And another thing about the record that I find really interesting is that y’all chose to use such natural production. Some of the other Mardi Gras Indian albums have incorporated a lot of instrumentation and contemporary style, but y’all stuck to the basics. Why did y’all decide to do that?
Jermaine Bossier: To be honest with you man, we just wanted to make something that the Indians could sew to. We wanted to make something that other Mardi Gras Indians, that other gangs around the city, could put in their radio or put in their car when they’re sitting down sewing, man, and that could just get them all they way going. You know what I’m saying? That was our thing. We were just really trying to touch basis with the rest of the Mardi Gras Indians. We didn’t really think this would go this far. We just wanted to make some good Indian music.
Don’t get me wrong. I think our next project is going to be a little different. We’re gonna stick to the basics again, but at the same time, we’re going to add a few more songs with instruments because we don’t want to just make Mardi Gras Indian music all the time. We want to make music. But in the beginning, we just wanted to touch the people who mask Indian. You know? The people who are sitting down sewing those suits, man. The people who are making that financial sacrifice every year to keep this culture going. Those are the people we wanted to touch. I think we did. I really think we did.
AD: And you’re obviously touching people outside of that culture, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have you on the phone right now.
Jermaine Bossier: For real. [Laughs]
AD: So one thing that I did notice with the sparse production — and this might be a stretch so correct me if I’m wrong, but I never really thought about this before– is that when you listen to it, and the call and response and the vocal delivery, there is a connection between what this record is, and obviously what y’all are doing when you’re masking, and the late 90s Rap from New Orleans that became really popular worldwide. Do you feel like that’s a fair connection and do you think that those guys were inspired by what y’all were doing and what you’re still doing?
Jermaine Bossier: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do truly believe that this culture still remains elusive to some people in this city. There are still people in this city that don’t really know about the Mardi Gras Indian culture. But to the people embedded in this music thing–the Mardi Gras Indian thing, it has to play a part. You know what I’m saying? I mean, we have something called a Bamboula beat, you know, that we do with the Mardi Gras Indians, man, and that beat has been in this city since slavery. Since slaves first were brought here from Africa. You know what I’m saying? I mean, that one beat has been in this city for the longest. And that beat – that’s music. It’s the backbone of music. That Bamboula beat. It’s what Jazz came from. Jazz is another form of Rap. That scatting that those guys do in Jazz is just like Rap.
So, I really feel and believe, man, that if you go back and you listen to Master P and you listen to B.G. and you listen to a lot of those rappers that made it big that came from New Orleans, somewhere, somewhere in their portfolio they have a song that’s dealing with the Mardi Gras Indians, you know? I know Master P. has a song when he sings, [singing] “Ooh nah nay, ooh nah nay” or something like that. And Baby, I mean B.G., he has a rap song that he sings something about “Ooh nah nay, who got the fiyah?” You know what I’m saying? This Mardi Gras Indian thing, man, it helped influence music, just period, you know? That’s just what I believe.
AD: I noticed that listening to these songs, that there’s an interesting struggle lyrically between “knife and gun” and “needle and thread.” You mentioned that in the 80s it was still pretty wild in the Indian culture. Are y’all still dealing with violence or has it calmed down?
Jermaine Bossier: I don’t want to say anything that can diminish the culture. This is a warrior’s culture. You know what I’m saying? It’s still a warrior culture. Back in the day, man, it’s like when you’re coming up and you first start masking you hear all these stories about other guys and how they were warring. Just all kind of stuff, man. So a lot of people when they start masking, you know, fight. And just be this “hoo wah, hoo wah, hoo wah” first. It’s invented in them already. That’s what they go out there with. And on top of that, sometimes you might have people that have had a little bit too much to drink that day. Sometimes stuff – it happens. It happens, man.
Like I said, there done been many times where I done met people and I had a great day. I didn’t have no problems. But I’ve had times where I done had to fight in an Indian suit or whatever. Or my Second Liners started fighting. And if not my Second Line, then the guy I was meeting and his Second Line. Anything can happen, man. Anything. I’m not the one to sugar coat just to make something look good for the media or nothing like that because I feel like our culture is a strong culture. This is something that’s gonna last. As long as New Orleans is here I feel like Mardi Gras Indians are going to be here. You know? But this is a real warrior culture, man. This is a real warrior culture.
You have a Spy Boy. Everybody has a specific role to play. You know, everybody has a job to do. And the thing is, man, protecting the Big Chief. Not letting no harm come to the Big Chief, man. This is a territorial thing. And you’re going to project your area. You know what I’m saying? Mardi Gras Day, man. If you leaving from this block and my Chief is with me…then I don’t expect another gang to come up my block. But that gang might feel like “I’m not turning around for nobody.”
Sometimes things happen man. Sometimes it still can get violent. But for the most part, we look pretty and we spend a lot of money on these suits, so we don’t go out there with that intention, you know, to just mess up our suit. We sewed all year and we’re looking good. We’re beautiful. [Laughs] But sometimes things happen, man. It’s a warrior culture, for real.
AD: Things happen with everything.
Jermaine Bossier: [Laughs.] For real, man. For real. I had a fight St. Joseph’s night. In my Indian suit, man. I mean like I said, man. Sometimes things happen. And not just that, you have to earn your respect. If you feel like a person is not respecting you, you have to get your respect. Because the first time you let one person disrespect you–this is New Orleans. This city is small, man. I mean, when I had the fight, I went home and took my suit off and I got a ride Uptown. As soon as I got Uptown the whole Uptown knew what had happened. You know what I’m saying? This city is small, man. Word travels fast. So you have to stand your ground, you have to be a man, and you have to defend yourself. You have to earn your respect and you can’t let nobody just disrespect you.
AD: You mentioned the song, “Fungah Alafiyah Ahshay.” Please pardon my pronunciation. I saw online – I could be reading too much into this – the interpretation, “I come to you with head and heart and nothing up my sleeves.” Have you ever heard that translation of that saying?
Jermaine Bossier: Yeah, I did. I’ve heard that before. And I guess that’s probably why I was saying some of the stuff I was saying on the song. And I guess that’s why Romeo was saying some of the stuff he was saying, because of what we read in that interpretation. Maybe we have that interpretation wrong, but we just went by what we read. You know? I mean, I don’t really know anybody from Africa that I can just ask. You know what I’m saying? We looked it up. That’s what we found and that’s the way we chose to go with the song.
AD: Another saying that I hear at the end of every song is “Conah Fay.” What does that mean?
Jermaine Bossier: Conah Fay, man. Conah Fayah. That’s an African word for “Stop what you’re doing right now.” We used that in the studio. Basically, that’s the language that the Mardi Gras Indians use. It’s the Louisiana Creole language and it’s the African language that we kind of mixed together, man, to form this language that we have. You know?
Some people – they might make up words. For the most part, man, you have words like Two Way Paka Way. “Pa” in French, in Louisiana Creole, means “Don’t.” You’re basically telling a person, Two Way Paka Way. “Two ways you don’t go. Two ways you can’t come.” And that’s like, “This way, you can’t come forward. You can’t come through here. Go back the way you’ve come from. There’s only two ways you can go.”
“Umba” is a Creole word for “Get Down.” And we say “We make no Umba.” So we’re telling the person, “We don’t get down. We don’t bow down to nobody.”
AD: Who is the young man that sings at the end of “Roll Call”?
Jermaine Bossier: That’s my man, Tooga. I started this program at the Porch, this little neighborhood center in the 7th Ward, man. It was like an after school program. We filled out an application to get a grant. We got the grant, so I started a class teaching these kids how to sew. Tooga was one of the kids that was in my class. I started the class in 2010 and Tooga’s still masking to this day. Tooga has the youngest gang in the city. Tooga walking around with a bunch of kids. He’s the Little Chief Big Chief of that gang. He’s Big Chief Tooga from the Wild Red Flame Hunters.
AD: Your sons also mask with you, too, right?
Jermaine Bossier: Yes, my sons been masking. My oldest son been masking since the age of one. My youngest son started masking when he was two. They’ve been masking ever since, man. My oldest son, he’s making 14 November 9th, and my youngest son, he’ll be 13 in June. My youngest son, that’s my Little Chief. And my oldest son, that’s my 3rd Chief. Once I stop masking, I’ll give the Gang to one of them and they can just keep the name going.
AD: That’s gotta be pretty cool to have those guys carrying on the tradition.
Jermaine Bossier: It is. My uncle, from the Black Eagles, he was masking, but he died. Recently, his son, my cousin Rody, he passed away, too. I watched my Uncle’s gang just sit there because they don’t have nobody masking to hold the name down. You know what I’m saying? And after a few years, man, people stop. People forget about you. They forget about the Black Eagles Gang name. So, that’s something I try to do. I try to represent my uncle in everything I do. words / j steele