The Dirt

Big Chief Bo Dollis

by Laura McKnight

 

On a Saturday afternoon at this year’s Bayou Boogaloo festival, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis and the Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians arrived with loud feathers and bright tunes, creating a celebratory air at the Positive Vibrations Stage. Lots of crowd members danced in the grass as others nodded to the beat while reclining on picnic blankets or floating in kayaks, canoes, and makeshift party barges on nearby Bayou St. John. 

Photo by Zack Smith

But near the end of the set, the energetic Bo Jr., clad in sharp white slacks and vest, slowed the show to a halt and grew serious.

Feet stopped moving and friends stopped chatting. The air changed to one of reverence.

“I really didn’t want to perform today,” Bo Jr. told the crowd.

The lack of his father, the late Big Chief Theodore “Bo” Dollis Sr., by his side seemed too gaping an absence, he said.

Along with Bo Jr., the city of New Orleans has felt that absence since Jan. 20, 2015, when Big Chief Bo Dollis passed away at age 71.

The elder Bo Dollis spent five decades leading the Wild Magnolia tribe, a role he used to help guide the city’s entire Mardi Gras Indian culture into a new, more peaceful era and enable the spread of Indian music to other parts of the planet.

Named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2011, the life of the late Big Chief continues to influence Mardi Gras Indian culture. In honor of his legacy, the New Orleans Jazz Fest featured the late Big Chief on the 2015 official Jazz Fest poster, and the nonprofit New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, in concert with its Assistance Foundation, has established a Bo Dollis Memorial Fund.  The fund aims to support Mardi Gras Indian culture by easing the financial burdens of active, masking Indians in need. The city’s Indians sacrifice their own time and money to make their suits and share their traditions with the public for free. Income for New Orleans performers and creators is often tenuous, leaving musicians and other performers without access to quality care. 

Bo Dollis Sr. served as the clinic’s 2013 Honorary Donor Appeal Chair and had used the clinic since its founding in 1998. With help from the clinic, Big Chief Bo Dollis Sr. fought diabetes and heart problems while still leading the Wild Magnolias—until a few years ago, when his declining health had him pass the role down to his son, Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis. Donations to the Bo Dollis Memorial Fund may be made via the NOMC website: http://neworleansmusiciansclinic.org/bodollis.

The elder Bo Dollis, a Central City native who started masking in his early teens, is remembered for leading the effort to transform Indian street battles from physically-violent standoffs to fierce showdowns for the title of “prettiest” hand-sewn Indian suit. 

He also made history by recording “Handa Wanda,” the first commercial Mardi Gras Indian single, a move credited with introducing Indian culture to the world. “Handa Wanda,” along with other Wild Magnolias music, reflected the mix of traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants and percussion with funk and R&B, a blend pioneered by Bo Dollis Sr., Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Quint Davis, now producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Albums featuring this new musical blend won first-time fans overseas and paved the way for Mardi Gras Indian performances in Europe and at Carnegie Hall. Listeners gravitated to Big Chief Bo Dollis’ joyous spirit, strong shouts and gritty vocals.

“He was the physical manifestation of the most beautiful things New Orleans has to offer to the world,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at Bo Dollis Sr.'s funeral, according to a Nola.com article.

But the spiritual manifestation remains.

“I’m doing this for you,” Bo Dollis Jr. said during his Bayou Boogaloo performance, an index finger pointed to the sky, invoking his father’s presence.

Or maybe not so much invoking as calling attention to a presence already felt in the continuous shake of the tambourine and strong Indian shouts.

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