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Cha Wa's J’Wan Boudreaux and Joe Gelini // Photo: Erika Goldring

Cha Wa is Comin’ For Ya

It starts with a needle and thread.

“You have to want to sew to be an Indian – that’s the key rule,” says J’Wan Boudreaux, lead singer of Cha Wa, a Mardi Gras Indian brass band from New Orleans.

To truly join a tribe, one has to sew his own suit adorned with colorful feathers, beads and patches. Each suit represents the soul of its creator, its wearer. That’s why Boudreaux stitched images of dream catchers, Native Americans and the tools with which they hunt on to his own.

“Everybody has their own personal connection to their suit,” he says. “My connection is more spiritual because of all of my patches. We all pick our own patches, and I’m feeling this way.”

Cha Wa, translating to “We’re comin’ for ya” in Indian dialect, digs deep to honor its ancestral roots in their latest album Spyboy, which earned the group a 2018 Grammy nomination in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category. The six-piece jazz group is taking the stage at the 29th annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest on September 7 to bring a little Mardi Gras magic to the District.

Boudreaux shares that the concept for the Grammy-nominated album came from his own personal growth as a vocalist, but the title of Spyboy itself represents the position he holds in his tribe the Golden Eagles.

“Spyboy is the eyes of the tribe,” he says. “I lead the way along the parades, and I’m the one that makes sure we’re going where we’re supposed to go. At one point throughout this album, I stepped up – it was now or never. Everybody had a hand in the album, but it’s about my personal experience.”

Boudreaux says his grandfather Monk Boudreaux, who is the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles, has been a source of inspiration and guidance to him since he was about two years old. Monk is a musician himself and was once a vocalist and conga player for the Wild Magnolias, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe that heavily influenced Cha Wa.

Joe Gelini, Cha Wa’s drummer and founder, used to play percussion with Big Chief Monk in the Wild Magnolias. But in 2014, he officially decided to break off and create his own group. He pulled J’Wan into the project and Cha Wa was born.

“I was fascinated with the music and the culture and art of Mardi Gras Indians,” Gelini says. “As a drummer, I was particularly intrigued because the rhythms are prominent force in New Orleans music. I was hooked.”

The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians stems back to the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when black men first dressed as Native Americans during the Mardi Gras parade to pay homage to the natives who helped so many slaves escape to freedom.

Today, Mardi Gras Indian tribes continue the tradition of honoring both their Native American and enslaved African American ancestors by parading down the streets of New Orleans and performing the music that is unique to this region and group of people.

“It’s [about] informing people about the culture and not just the music,” Boudreaux says. “We talk about slaves trying to escape with the Native American Indians, and from them showing us their ways, that’s where we get our singing, dancing and music. We’re saying, ‘Thank you.’”

Gelini says he’s excited to share the Mardi Gras Indians’ music and culture with the District this fall because of the city’s own unique go-go music scene, which the drummer compares to New Orleans brass bands.

“We’re going to bring the New Orleans street parade to the stage,” he says. “We’re performing songs from Spyboy and some new stuff including a new single, ‘Wild Man,’ which will be released before we perform at Rosslyn Jazz Fest.”

Mary-Claire Burick, president of the Rosslyn Business Improvement District, says she’s looking forward to the “diverse and powerful acts” featured at the festival this year – including Cha Wa.

“Year after year, we’ve seen an increasing enthusiasm for New Orleans bands and the great energy they bring, and we believe Cha Wa will continue to build on this tradition,” Burick says. “They’re extraordinary artists who really reflect the spirit of the festival by performing social music that sparks excitement and interactions amongst festival goers.”

On his last words considering Mardi Gras Indians, sewing elaborate suits and performing at the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, Boudreaux had this to say: “Cha Wa means we’re comin’ for ya.”

Don’t miss the 29th annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest on Saturday, September 7 from 1-7 p.m. Go to www.rosslynva.org for more information on the festival, and to www.chawaband.com to learn more about Cha Wa.

Rosslyn Jazz Fest at Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

Photo: Courtesy of Mark G. Meadows

Changing Minds Through Jazz: A Q&A with Mark G. Meadows

If you’re tuned into the jazz music scene, then you’ve probably heard the name Mark G. Meadows. Best known for his social change album, 2016’s To The People, wherein he encourages his listeners to look toward their future how to best handle the successes and failures.

He meditates on how to best move forward as a nation, while also making sure we take care of each other. We were able to sit down with him and talk about his upcoming performance at AMP by Strathmore and the creative process for his new album, Be The Change.  

On Tap: What brought you into jazz music originally?
Mark Meadows: Honestly, my dad is my biggest influence in terms of jazz; my dad, Gabriel Meadows, [he] is a jazz vocalist in Dallas. I started with classical piano when I was five. He actually lied to my Russian piano teacher, saying I was six. She didn’t take anyone under the age of six. I would go to my dad’s gigs and would listen to him play jazz, I already had the ear, that’s when I began taking formal lessons with Nora Jones’ teacher Julie Bunk. 

OT: What do you love about the jazz world?
MM: I love the fact that it is never the same and always fresh, no matter what song or what field I am performing in, we are already listening to create and to create something new. Similar to having a conversation with old friends, no matter what, you always enter the conversation not knowing where it’s going to go.

OT: Where do you typically draw your inspiration when writing your songs?
MM: My personal experiences, without a doubt. My music is very telling of my personal life. It is generally my therapy. I use my music to grapple with different life choices I have to make and whether it be career choices or more philosophical thoughts or relationships. Everything I write stems from a sincere honest place and that phase of my life. 

OT: How did you feel post-2016? And how did that inspire your next works?
MM: Sure, well 2016 was a crazy year, the year I released To The People, my mantra for social change. It was also the year that I played the lead role in a musical called Jelly’s Last Jam. Where I took on a whole new world of possibility and connections, a fearless leap for me. After that, I was dazed and confused, between a whirlwind of dropping the album and having my first experience acting. I didn’t know which direction to go in, whether I was an actor, musician or music director. It shook me after I made this statement of change and how far we have to come, what’s the point all the time I spend and all the messages I want to convey. Is it being lost? from that came Be The Change, which is about what your change is, whether smiling to someone on the street, we all can and should do something to make that change. 

OT: What do you hope to achieve with Be The Change?
MM: After everything I had done, that we still as a country made the decision we made and I saw all the alt-right groups and things I never thought I would see again. I thought “man, maybe I’m not really making a difference.” After some meditation and conversation I realized I am, it sounds a lot like Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” this is my 2019 version of that. 

OT: Any pre-show rituals?
MM: I like to spend time with my band and talk and hang with them. Most importantly, I need 5-10 minutes by myself to meditate and convince myself of my mission to communicate joy, love and understanding to people. 

OT: What is it that you want listeners to be aware of when listening to this album?
MM: I want them to be aware of listening to music outside of their comfort zone. People who know my music know that the track is not my normal sound, it is my attempt to be the example of the change. In order to be the change you have to change the way you talk and interact with people, you have to change your circles. My attempt to reach outside the typically jazz, soul and R&B world. To be honest, most of the people who are my fans probably think and have the same political views as me, we as a world need to try and find a way to interact with those who are different than us.

OT: What are you most looking forward to with your next performance?
MM: I’m looking forward to performing a very special evening to what I hope will be an amazing audience. I don’t set expectations, I live in the moment and on July 11 I will give my all to the crowd, and hope they are with us.

Mark G. Meadows plays at AMP by Strathmore on July 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18-$32. For more information visit the website.

AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.ampbystrathmore.com

Photo: Mike Kim

Kamasi Washington Gives Us Butterflies

Kamasi Washington played Lincoln Theatre Saturday night and, sitting fat and happy in the audience, I had butterflies before he went on.

The opener, RVA-based Butcher Brown and his band, played a jazz and funk set to open, and they were great, but on either side of the Butcher Brown band drum kit, you could see Washington’s two-kit setup bookending the stage, hinting at what we could look forward to.

Washington released his debut record, The Epic, in 2015 (clocking in at just under three hours!), and has since made himself the face of contemporary jazz whether that’s for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or for his own solo material, like The Epic, or his subsequent records Harmony of Difference (2017) and Heaven and Earth (2018).

From the titles of his records, you can tell the man doesn’t shy away from high aspirations and that comes across in his live set. Like on his recordings, the live set is both challenging to listeners and lush. Lush in its melodies and instrumentation and challenging because there are no eight-bar solos and there are no three minute songs.

Onstage, Washington was flanked by vocalist Patrice Quinn, trombonist Ryan Porter, Brandon Coleman on keys, Miles Mosely on upright bass, and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, musician Thundercat’s younger brother.

I may have been miffed at first to only see a seven piece band, knowing how orchestral Washington’s recordings can be, but that was soon forgotten. These players are among the very best.

Standouts from the night included a Miles Mosely composition called “Abraham,” which he led on upright bass and soloed over using a bowing technique and a wah-pedal, Brandon Coleman’s solo on “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” Patrice Quinn on “The Rhythm Changes” and the drum “conversation” between Bruner Jr. and Austin.

Onstage, Washington actually referred to “Space Travelers Lullaby” as the “Space Cadets Lullaby” and called Quinn the “queen of all space cadets.”

“To this day, I have no idea how she gets to gigs.”

Watching her onstage, you might have thought the same thing. She only sang on a few tracks and otherwise danced onstage. But her dancing was otherworldly. Imagine an oracle moving and swaying, or imagine a priestess dancing with someone, that someone lacking a body.

Still, my favorite song from the night was “Truth,” the final composition off of Washington’s Harmony of Difference record. One of the things I love about that record is how symphonic it is. The first five tracks feature five different melodies, all of which come back on the final track “Truth” and are played simultaneously. It’s sounds like it could be a cacophony, but it’s so far from it.

“I made Harmony of Difference,” Washington says onstage, “to remind us of just how beautiful we are, and that the difference between us is what makes us great.”

At this point in the set, he really had our ears.

“Diversity among all the people on this planet is not something to be tolerated,” he continued, “it’s something to be celebrated.”

Truth was the metaphor for that message and the night was a celebration of that message. Don’t miss Washington the next time he comes to town.

For more information about Kamasi Washington, go to www.kamasiwashington.com or follow the musician on Instagram at @kamasiwashington, Twitter at @KamasiW or Facebook at @kamasiw.

Photo: Mark Gorman

The District’s Jazz Renaissance

Thirteen years ago, drummer John Heinze played U Street mainstay Velvet Lounge while on tour, and some gravity comes into his voice as he depicts the scene that evening.

“It was a Thursday night and there was no one out on the streets,” he says. “It was a ghost town. And it wasn’t a holiday, it was the dead of summer. There was nothing going on.”

That DC isn’t the one he knows today. After talking to Heinze, now part of funk-with-soul band Aztec Sun, and other local artists, I pieced together that our jazz community is so small that nearly everyone seems to know one another but big enough that you can find shows all over town – if you know which doors to look behind.

The DC jazz scene is undergoing a revitalization spurred by younger musicians committed to keeping the vibrant genre alive. Though the music may seem old-fashioned on first mention, artists like Heinze are finetuning the jazz experience to engage newer generations.

Heinze moved here from Chicago five years ago and quickly became involved in the jazz scene through “musician connecting organization” Flashband and by seeking out open jams. He serves as my introduction to this world, telling me where I should go and on what night – and who I might look to talk to.

When he rattles off suggestions, I struggle to keep up: Gypsy Sally’s, Villain & Saint, Service Bar, Marvin, Sotto, Brixton, Bin 1301…the list goes on. He also mentions neighborhood spot Maddy’s Bar & Grille on Connecticut Avenue, where local sax player Elijah Jamal Balbed hosts weekly sessions.

Balbed has been on the DC jazz and go-go scene since 2005, when he started playing clubs like Twins Jazz at age 15. Four years ago, he started “genre-bending ensemble” the JoGo Project, inspired by his time performing with Chuck Brown.

He tells me the jazz scene is extremely close-knit, and I see what he means. There are faces I recognize at shows from other jams around town. When Balbed’s not hosting sessions at Maddy’s, you can catch him as one of the featured artists at Brixton’s Sunday night jams and at Pearl Street Warehouse for his Southwest Soul Sessions cohosted with drummer Isabelle De Leon.

Spots on Balbed’s short list of favorite spots include Hamilton Live and Blues Alley, but smaller bars and clubs aren’t the only venues promoting DC jazz. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage series offers free shows of outstanding quality, and community stalwart the Anacostia Arts Center (AAC) hosts the Second Sundays Jazz series.
Kadija Bangura, the AAC’s marketing manager, says that curator and noted jazz musician Vernard Gray is spearheading the initiative, which includes featuring artists who often fly under the radar.

“We’re looking forward to being introduced to jazz talent that doesn’t receive the same attention from major clubs in the city,” Bangura says.

Because some of our beloved jazz venues have recently closed their doors, the AAC’s continued support is imperative for people in Anacostia and from around the city. The center has created a space for fans to watch younger musicians’ first chance to be in the spotlight, an undeniable asset to the genre and the District as a whole.

“We typically pull fans of jazz music from the community,” Bangura continues. “We provide jazz even as other venues close.”

Balbed and I talked about some of those notable low points – the shuttering of Bohemian Caverns chief among them. The U Street Corridor institution hosted a score of names since its founding in 1926; in fact, the space has remained empty, and you can even see its sad piano roll marquee still on the building. But the saxophonist doesn’t seem too discouraged. He believes the musicians will keep the jazz scene going regardless of any obstacles.

“There have been some down points,” Balbed says. “But even with the venues closing down, the energy of the musicians never dies. Venues will come and go, but as long as the musicians are around, they’ll keep the scene alive.”

Learn more about the JoGo Project at www.jogoproject.com, Aztec Sun at www.aztecsunband.com and Anacostia Arts Center’s upcoming jazz performances at www.anacostiaartscenter.com.

Check out these DC area venues for live jazz.

Bin 1301: 1301 U St. NW, DC; www.bin1301dc.com
Bossa Bistro: 2463 18th St. NW, DC; www.bossaproject.com
Brixton: 901 U St. NW, DC; www.brixtondc.com
Gypsy Sally’s: 3401 K St. NW, DC; www.gypsysallys.com
Maddy’s Bar & Grille: 1726 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.maddysbar.com
Marvin: 2007 14th St. NW, DC; www.marvindc.com
Mr. Henry’s: 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; www.mrhenrysdc.com
Service Bar: 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com
Sotto: 1610 14th St. NW, DC; www.sottodc.com
Villain & Saint: 7141 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.villainandsaint.com

The Big Picture on the Big Screen

When globally renowned jazz clarinetist David Krakauer and his partners set out to create “The Big Picture,” they intended to tell the story of Krakauer’s Jewish heritage as well as a larger story of culture and identity. The idea of reconnecting with Krakauer’s own roots and promoting tolerance of others informs the work, as it has much of Krakauer’s career, but this multimedia performance ties it all together.

“The Big Picture” combines visuals from iconic films with the classic soundtracks reimagined by Krakauer and The 35mm Orchestra. Some of the films are directly related to Judaism, but all were chosen because of their portrayal of the Jewish experience in some form or another, according to Krakauer.

“I believe that by being proud of one’s culture and welcoming other people in, it’s a [message] saying to other people: ‘be proud of your culture and let’s celebrate our differences in a beautiful way,’” says Krakauer. 

The visuals serve as reminders of the iconic stories, which include “Cabaret,” “Life is Beautiful” and other classics.

“I think it helps people remember the movies, both from the music they hear and also little subtle visual triggers. But they’re not narrative visuals, they’re just kind of reveries, kind of meditations on the movies.”

The clarinetist has performed “The Big Picture” in the U.S. and in Europe, but regardless of where and when Krakauer performs his music, the message is always timely. E.g. some of Krakauer’s work with globally renowned Jewish roots band, The Klezmatics, coincided with the fall of the Berlin wall and a new era for Eastern Europe. 

On that experience Krakauer says:

“Coming to Europe in the late 80s/early 90s and playing Jewish music – without waving a flag or getting up on the soapbox – we were making a statement for multiculturalism, for tolerance, for a more inclusive view and that has continued throughout my career ever since.”

This is the same message brought out in “The Big Picture” and it’s one which has been a hallmark of Krakauer’s work no matter who he performs with.

Krakauer and The 35mm Orchestra will bring “The Big Picture” to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $26-$44 and can be purchased online here.

George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA; 703-993-8888; www.cfa.gmu.edu