Joseph “Monk” Boudreaux is the oldest living Mardi Gras Indian Chief, the Elder of Elders in a tradition dating back to the 1800s. As such, he sees himself as the guardian of a spiritual discipline that involves gnostic customs and beliefs shared by members within the New Orleans Black community over the course of multiple generations. He is one of the best-known and loved local culture heroes, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award recipient, the subject of murals on city walls and documentaries about New Orleans, and the inspiration for characters in television dramas like the HBO series Treme. He comes by his status as a Mardi Gras Indian chief through bloodlines of both African and Native American ancestry.
Bloodstains and Teardrops - Produced by Tab Benoit / Rueben Williams
Monk’s latest record is a dramatic example of how his method of singing as a Mardi Gras Big Chief can apply to other genres. The way he breaks up his lines, and the flow and spontaneity of his storytelling, makes as much sense in the context of Bloodstains and Teardrops as it does on his records with the Golden Eagles, his collaborations with Anders Osborne, Galactic, John Gros and 101 Runners, and unrecorded blues sets played with Johnny Sansone and John Fohl at the Voice of the Wetlands festival.
The record was inspired by Monk’s interest in reggae music, which has been demonstrated on several of his recordings over the years. “About six years ago, [manager] Rueben Williams and I got together, and he suggested we go to Jamaica and make a record,” said Monk. “When I got there, I found that Bob Marley had been a fan of mine for many years.”
Monk had never been to Jamaica before. He and Rueben went to Jamaica with guitarist Damon Fowler and spent a week looking around Kingston, driving up into the hills to see Bob Marley’s grave and recording with a reggae band and a toasting-style backup vocalist at Tad’s International Limited studio. The six songs Monk cut there reflected the inspiration he got from being in Jamaica and seeing the parallels to his New Orleans home. Back in Louisiana, co-producer Tab Benoit cut additional material at his studio to complete the album. But the lines between blues, swamp music and reggae become blurred as Monk develops his songs. In “Kingston Blues” Monk sings as if he had a revelation while he was in Kingston:
You know I’m a Big Chief
And I’m watching the sun go down
In Kingston town
Cause I’m a ramblin’ man
Blood tears in my heart
I feel like I’m in my home town
I feel so good inside
I began to cry, cry, cry
The pain went all away
Jamaica town you make me feel So good inside
“On ‘Kingston Blues’ I was thinkin’ about where I was at,” said Monk. “We drove around, we went up to Bob Marley’s place, we rode around the city. It’s a different place; like over there you gotta know where you’re going at. We just rode around in a van and we saw a lot of places where we passed the guys were just hanging out in the street. It felt like home.”
The title track is a powerful piece that works as a pure reggae track, but the theme is familiar to Monk:
Lady don’t cry
Cause your son was shot down
On the street in our neighborhood
Is Monk talking about New Orleans or Kingston? Both, as it turns out. “Or anywhere,” adds Monk emphatically. “In Jamaica I know what kind of songs that I had to sing ‘cause that’s what I do. We had a Jamaican bass player and a Jamaican drummer.”
Monk had nothing written when he arrived in Jamaica. He composes his songs spontaneously in the studio. “I try not to think when I’m singing because if you think, you gonna lose y’know?” he said. “Just go to it ’til you’re finished. Think after. Like I get a lot of musicians come to play with me and I have to tell them ‘don’t think about it, just play what you hear.’ If you start thinking about it the song gonna be over and you’re still trying to figure it out.”
The visit to Marley’s grave had a profound influence on Monk and was the subject of “Blue Mountains”:
I’m going to the mountain top
That’s where my brother lives
“Yeah, goin’ up to the mountains, goin’ up to Bob Marley’s house, where he lived and that was an experience for me—me liking him so much for his music—so we had to go up there to see what he was singing about and living in it, we went up there and walked around, walked to his grave, and we couldn’t believe it y’know? We was actually goin’ to the mountain top.”
At one point Monk references Marley’s song “Is This Love?” singing “Got a roof right on my head.”
“Yeah, don’t forget the children,” said Monk. “The children laugh and play on that mountain. We seen a lot of kids up there y’know. When we stopped they came over asking us to help ’em out. I gave ’em a few dollars and they was happy.”
Monk talked about the connections between New Orleans music and reggae.
“They say Bob Marley used to listen to a lot of New Orleans music,” he said. “New Orleans music is not played nowhere else in the world, but New Orleans during the time I was coming up… it was new music to them. It was a lot that wasn’t taught in schools.”
Several songs about his childhood emphasize how easily Monk’s concept fits with reggae. “Should’ve Been a Preacher Man” was based on something Monk’s mother used to say to him.
“She used to tell me that all the time when I was a kid. She used to say ‘Shut up, you think you be a preacher?’ Ha ha ha. She always said the right thing.”
“Mr. Okra Man” is a subject many New Orleanians are familiar with.
“When I was comin’ up, they didn’t have vegetables in the supermarket. The okra man used to come around all the time, he’d be calling out to all the people in the projects, ‘Come out!’ ’cause he was there you know. That’s where that comes from. I witnessed it. My mama used to say ‘Go stop him, go stop him, don’t let him get away, go stop him!’ ’Cause when he pass by he don’t stop unless you call him, y’know? Like the ice cream man, if you don’t stop him, he gonna keep going. They let you know they comin’ though.”
“Kick Me Down” is a lamentation song that appears in reggae lyrics over the years: the story of betrayal by someone the singer thought was a friend.
“I had a friend of mine,” Monk explained. “I tried to help him, and I couldn’t help him, he wanted to be all over me, he thought he was better than me, really. They try to kick you every time you turn your back.”
There is so much going on beneath the surface in a song like this. Part of the emotional power of Indian music, as well as reggae, are the things that are left unsaid, that can only be understood by living them.
That’s true of the blues as well, and the four Louisiana tracks delve into Monk’s relationship with the blues. “Choo Choo” is a classic train-time blues with Johnny Sansone blowing his harmonica behind Monk’s singing.
“Johnny and I and John Fohl and sometimes Papa Mali used to do a blues thing, so I did that” said Monk, “I had so many problems with women coming up that I sang that about when I was leaving.”
On “Blues Blues Blues” Monk sings about his childhood experiences listening to the blues played by an old man in his neighborhood.
“The old man told me when I was just a kid but I didn’t understand,” said Monk, “but when my baby left me, I understood. I listened to blues in New Orleans when I was a kid. They had old blues singers. They didn’t never record but they used to come home from work and sit on their steps and play the blues, and I used to sit there and listen to them. You learn from the elders, you just listen to ’em.”
The album ends on a somber note with “Indian Blues,” a slow blues that seems to sum up Monk’s philosophy in a few short strokes:
See me walkin’
With tears in my eyes
You might not understand
But I’m a happy man
Cried so many tears
And now I’m smilin’
Tell all them children
Oneday I'll be leaving home- Lord will set me free
Musicians on Bloodstains and Teardrops
Joseph "Monk" Boudreaux - Vocals & Tamborine
Tab Benoit - Guitar, Drums, Keyboards
Damon Fowler - Guitar
Eric Johanson - Guitar
Jason "Welsh Bass" Welsh - Bass
Corey Duplechin - Bass
Michael Doucet - Fiddle & Guitar
Johnny Sansone – Harmonica, Accordion & Guitar
Ali Meek - Backup Vocals
Wayne "Unga Barunga" Thompson – Drums
The boundaries of world music are as limitless as the internet. Culture cross-pollination has brought to life a musical Frankenstein - strong but sometimes confused. This extraordinary recording session bringing Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to Kingston Jamaica, shows no monsters created from the parts found. The session shows more of a dream representative of a lifetime living in spirit, despair, celebration, depth of heart and guardianship. Big Chief (Joseph) Monk Boudreaux’s long and deep roots run from his Cherokee Indian grandfather and his Haitian grandmother. Monk’s first tambourine was made from sticks and bottle caps. He would eventually go on to be a founding member of the legendary Golden Eagles tribe and is now the oldest living Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief in New Orleans. Monk belongs to a discipline that few of us ever could - a spiritual human grounded to this earth. A guiding force that seems as though he has always been here and always will be.
On this recording, Big Chief wears the clothing and walks in the shoes of the people
from his long and sometimes troubled life. He sings about hope, love and understanding. His voice, words and presence translate a language that speaks for itself - the music of the world.
Louisiana and Jamaica have always been hotbeds of music and culture, and they share many things in common such as: once British ruled, sugar cane production, parish divide and of course, music. It is said that early Ska was created by the sound of radio waves of early rock-and-roll broadcasts out of New Orleans. Bouncing in transmission across the sea, the sounds became delayed and backward with an upbeat instead of a down-beat as they came out of transistor radios in Kingston. Others say it was the early R & B and rock-and-roll of New Orleans musical pioneers Fats Domino and Louis Jordan being mixed in with Calypso and Mento music on American military broadcasts.
This project originated in Kingston was recorded at Tad’s International Limited
with the great Jamaican studio musicians and returned to Louisiana to find its way into
the good hands of Tab Benoit and members to be mixed with the Blues, Cajun, Zydeco
and Swamp music indigenous to South Louisiana.
In the same way, it crossed the ocean in the late 1940s, it’s alive and happening all over again.