We're celebrating Big Chief Monk Boudreaux's prestigious award! This year, Monk became a 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellow for Mardi Gras Indian Craftsman and Musicianship! We're so proud to honor him at home.
“Take me downtown on the battlefield; and when you meet ‘em that morning you’d better not kneel.”
Joseph Pierre “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux is the leader of the Golden Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe of New Orleans, Louisiana. Born in New Orleans on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, Boudreaux is a vital figure in the tradition, and has steadfastly distinguished himself as a gifted folk artist and dynamic performing musician through his unwavering dedication to this singular African American culture.
The New Orleans Black Indians emerged in the late 19th century, appearing as various “tribes” or “gangs,” in stunningly elaborate costumes, or “suits,” that combine the visual aesthetics of 19th century American Plains Indians and Afro-Caribbean Carnival revelers. Completely handmade, these suits include brightly colored feathers, intricate beadwork, rhinestones, sequins, satin, and ruffles.
Music and movement are as central to the tradition as is symbolic costuming, or “masking.” The 1956 field recordings by documentarian Samuel Charters first captured the group’s mélange of percussion, hypnotic chanting, and improvisational singing. This musical tradition is expressed through a shared canon of song form, lyrical allusions, Black Indian patois phraseology, and rhythmic structure.
Boudreaux began masking with the White Eagles tribe as a young man of 16. He drew personal inspiration from his father Raymond, a carpenter by trade, who had been a member of the Wild Squatoulas when Monk was very young. After Monk became a member of the White Eagles, an internal dispute led to the dissolution of the tribe and he joined the Golden Eagles. Boudreaux later became the Big Chief of that tribe.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a small group of New Orleans students and folklorists worked to bring the Mardi Gras Indian tradition to a wider community. Boudreaux, and several others, eventually became nationally known recording artists by blending their folk traditions with R&B and funk.
Boudreaux’s musical career has spanned nearly a half-century and has seen him perform in the world’s finest concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Additionally, he has performed in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. Boudreaux has recorded several critically acclaimed albums and has appeared as a guest musician on numerous recordings. In 1982, he performed with rock legend Robbie Robertson on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. More recently, Boudreaux portrayed himself in several episodes of HBO’s original series Treme.
Though Boudreaux has traveled the world as an ambassador of the Mardi Gras Indian culture, he remains deeply rooted in the traditions of place and family. Today, he focuses his artistic energies on his children and grandchildren, who now form the members of the Golden Eagles. As Boudreaux completes his sixth decade of masking, he grows ever more dedicated to maintaining, and indeed perpetuating, the foundations of this vibrant American vernacular culture.
Bio by Robert Brown, Appalachian State University