Anytime a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief dies, there is cause to gather those immersed in this perhaps least-widely understood and yet most essential tradition—in order to slap tambourines, and sing ritual songs like “Shallow Water” and “Indian Red.”
In the case of Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis, the longtime Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, who died at his New Orleans home yesterday, at 71, the mourning, honoring and celebrating should reach deep within the local community and well beyond : Dollis was a Big Chief on the streets of New Orleans; he was also, in 2011, awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
I’m hoping to get funeral and memorial information.
I’m sure there will be an outpouring in print and online, remembering Dollis, For now, there’s been a nice package of coverage about Dollis at the website of the Times-Picayune, Nola.com:Allison Fensterstock‘s obituary, which is accompanied by a slide show of images from photographer Erika Goldring, is brief but full of insightful details, including this well-known fact:
He was among the first to bring the culture and sound of the Indian culture to national prominence, recording the first commercial album of Mardi Gras Indian music, the single “Handa Wanda,” in 1970 – the same year that he and Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 1974, along with his wife Laurita Dollis, keyboardist Willie Tee, Snooks Eaglin, percussionist Uganda Roberts and saxophonist Earl Turbinton, Dollis recorded the groundbreaking album “The Wild Magnolias,” melding Indian chants with sizzling funk. Over the years, the Wild Magnolias would perform around the world.
One piece by Keith Spera captures the allure and force of Dollis’ voice:
In the pantheon of New Orleans music’s great voices, Bo Dollis’ remarkable rasp, equal parts gravel and joy, ranks near the top. It is just as unmistakable, if the stylistic opposite, of Aaron Neville’s delicate, fluttering falsetto. Stanton Moore, the Galactic drummer, once observed that Dollis’ voice, like those of Robert Plant and James Brown, is “rooted to the center of the earth. It’s the most soulful, powerful shout that I’ve ever heard. It’s heartbreaking and triumphant at the same time.”
In another, Spera documents the moment Dollis’ Wild Magnolias, and Mardi Gras Indian culture, entered the pop-music scene:
“See, the only thing we thought we was was street singers,” Dollis said in 1999. “I can get out there on the streets today and I’ll rock it from the time I start ’til the time I finish. But I had never played with no band. It was amazing when Quint [Davis] put us together.”
Jonathan Bullington captures the scene at a Central City bar, with Gerald “Bo Jr.” Dollis.
And click here for a sneak peak at the image of Dollis, from painter Randy “Frenchy” Frechette, that will adorn the 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster.
(Images: Derek Bridges via Flickr/ Courtesy Sunnyside Records)