Each year Mardi Gras Indians greet the day on the city streets to sing and strut. This has been going on since the late 19th century. The call and response sounds of the Indians often carry the Congo beat, fundamental in New Orleans' musical fabric. The beloved Indian chief Monk Boudreaux has been masking Indian for more than 70 years. We visited him at home where he quietly sewed his new suit.
Monk Boudreaux: Working on one of my patches, for the back of my boots. And I’m gonna put some ruffles around it. You get up at what 9 in the morning, you stay up til maybe 2 at night, sometimes 3, all depends on how close it is and what you gotta do. Like sometimes I stay up all night. You sew all morning to the break of dawn, that’s a true saying, there. Cause I be in here the night before Mardi Gras, I ain’t never slept in I don’t know, about 40 years. Never went to bed the night before Mardi Gras. But you know, the spirits carry you, so you don’t feel sleepy, you don’t feel tired, until you take off that Indian Suit.
The street is important because that’s where we, you know, show off what we set down for a whole year. And people is out there waiting to look to see what you did, and they judge you and see you know, if you pretty. They got like hundreds of people outside my door just waiting to see how the big chief came out this year. And I always come out lookin’ good.
Baby Doll: We’re baby dolls, and we’re waiting for Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to come out. Soon as he comes out, he’s gonna sing some songs to us and we’re all gonna follow him down the street. You know we’re part of the Indian Tribe. We’re the girls version. Some of the girls are Indians, and we’re just the Baby Dolls, we travel along with the Big Chief.
MB: Back in the day, they had the Baby Dolls, used to follow the Indians. That’s why when they said they had 101, it wasn’t 101 Indians, it was 101 with the Baby Dolls and the Skeleton Men and the Moss Men. And so I sung a song about it. And so when they heard the song, they said, “Monk I wanna be a Baby Doll,” well sure, you know, I have a lot of white friends. “Well what I have to do?” Well, you have to dress like a baby doll.
Moss Man: We’re the Golden Eagles Moss Men. We spent three nights taking moss out of the golf course in Audubon Park, but don’t tell the security there that. Now we can climb up in trees and jump down on people like they used to.
MB: I sing about mostly where we’re going and what we’re gonna do. Like if I say we goin’ downtown, we gonna meet everybody, we gonna have a good time. If trouble come, we ain’t gonna run. But I don’t bar no trouble, and I don’t start no fight. It’s Mardi Gras morning and my head is tight.
And I got a grandson, he’s like following my footsteps. You know, he’s singing, he goin on tour, well I’m teachin him, you know, how it goes.
Baby Doll: Indians! Oh, we got half of one. It’s about to happen, ya’ll.
MB: And you know like this was hidden for many years because a lot of people didn’t know about it. Only the neighborhood people. And so we met Quint Davis and he came to one of our practices and he said, “Man, ya’ll are makin’ some music that nobody do in the world, you know?” From then on, then the world started hearing about it.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.