“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.
79rs Gang :: Fungal Alafia Ahshay
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.