Wild Magnolias Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. Discusses New Album and Life In New Orleans
Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief
A City Where…Art, Heritage and Culture Matters
In a City like New Orleans, it is one filled with art on so many levels. It is a place where one is exposed to so much creativity. It is what draws many to this incredible City.
From this great aesthetic menu is “The Mardi Gras Indians” of “Black Masking Tradition” it is a centuries old tradition of craftsmanship and design that combines colorful feathers, beads, sewing styles, songs, and camaraderie and that is an amazing part of the unique culture of New Orleans.
Carrying on the Tradition
One of the Big Chiefs that made history was Bo Dollis Sr., of the Wild Magnolias, who in the 1970’s made the first recording of this amazing and incredible music. During his amazing life, he was also known for making large, elaborate Indian suits.
Since then, many have recorded the music of the rich Indian Culture, and their suits, culture and way of life have been on stages across the globe. Giving the world a glimpse of the sacred rhythms, that’s so relevant to New Orleans, and its people.
In 2015, the great Bo Dollis, passed away, but left a great legacy in his son Gerard “Bo” Dollis Jr., who is continuing in the spirit of his father, but adding new elements to Mardi Gras Indian Music.
“My dad was the first to record Mardi Gras Indian music on wax,” Dollis says proudly, in his unmistakable New Orleans accent. “I learned a lot from him and have taken many of the lessons that guides my life in my approach to music and how I live my life.”
Dollis Jr. took over as Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias and Funk Band and have created a sound that respects the tradition but adds other elements to give it something extra. Young Bo is also known for an incredible stage show that keep crowds on their feet.
My Name is Bo
His new album is called My Name is Bo. He describes it by saying, “It is a two-sided album, one side is traditional, and the other side incorporates all of New Orleans, Zydeco, Blues, Funk, Jazz, and Rap.”
In his latest project, he worked with many including the great Cyril Neville.
“I grew up under Cyril Neville traveling with my dad, and when I made my first album Cyril came up to me and said, ‘hey I want to produce your next album.’ I called him and he was excited about it. We exchanged ideas many of them were similar. Like for example, I have a song called Indian Blues and he had a song called the same thing and we combined them. Overall, I feel good about this album and people are receiving it well since its release.”
The music and culture of the Indians is something that’s been in his blood as he recounts learning the tradition from his father and the intricate work that goes into making a suit, drawing from many African and Native American traditions.
“Black Masking Indian, it started in the neighborhoods because we couldn’t parade in the French Quarter or on St. Charles Avenue. We brought the parades to the people,” says Dollis, who continues to take it to the streets of New Orleans where it began, to stages in every corner of the globe representing New Orleans.
It is something he does and takes very seriously and is passionate about. “When it comes to making a suit, you have to love Masking Indian, there are a lot of sacrifices involved in it. It is a labor of creativity and love, sewing bead by bead and stone by stone, to come up with what we create.”
Culture…The Heartbeat of a City
The City is changing, and some would say a City like New Orleans, with its many traditions are in danger of possible extinction. Dollis feels like they will live on saying, “I don’t see it changing but the City is changing, but as far as the Indians I don’t see that. You can’t change the spirit of it, and I believe it will get bigger and better.”
Like so much COVID-19 have affected lives everywhere. But in a City like New Orleans, where physical touch, intimacy and closeness is so much part of the fabric of life, it’s had an impact on the Black Masking Tradition as well.
“Right before COVID hit in 2020, I made a big white suit and wore it one time. I am hoping with the canceling of a lot of festivals that by 2022, we will be on the other side of COVID-19, so we can continue to practice our culture and make people feel good with the beautiful suits we create and our music that bring people together.”
“COVID have made many think about not making suits and Masking Indian, because of the time and cost, but right now I am making a suit for 2022 Mardi Gras.”
Resilience and the Spirit of a People
As the City is on the eve of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Dollis says it is important as ever to celebrate the traditions and heritage of the City. He hopes that this album shows that one can maintain traditions and yet, build on them.
“Katrina changed neighborhood, it didn’t change the Indians we were good to see each other, it wasn’t so much about suits, it was about the community,” Dollis Jr., says reflecting on what is truly important is people, and their resilience surrounding preserving their culture and heritage.”
As he continues, Dollis Jr., talks about how people are fascinated by how in New Orleans people party when someone dies. But in a City with so much mysticism and magic, these people’s spirits continue to live in the people and the lives they touch. It is one where the ancestors are revered and celebrated.
Lessons from my Father…A Recipe for a Great and Purposeful Life
This is something Lil Bo reflects on when speaking of his father and the legacy he left behind.
“He left me big shoes to fill, and I am taking what he gave me and reshaping it to fit who I am and give the people music they can enjoy and build on our tradition.”
“Also, my dad rooted me in what is important and that is first my family and the Indians, that’s been in my blood since I’ve been born; these are the two things I wake up and look forward to.”
And in these pressing times, Bo gives his recipe for a great and purposeful life, harkening back to his father…less stress, he did not stress about nothing,” he says laughing, and then says something that sums up life in New Orleans… “Eat good and less stress.”