Wild Magnolias guitarist Billy Iuso recalls the band’s recent trip to Washington D.C. to represent their Big Chief – Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis Sr. — as a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship recipient. The award is the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.
Here is a look at the experience, as told to Frank Etheridge by Billy Iuso:
“I think I surprised Big Chief a bit when I went to visit him in the hospital. As men, as we all get older, we don’t like people to see us in our weaker moments. Our conversation was very light-hearted. I told him, ‘You got to hurry up and get out of here so I can finally give you that guitar lesson.’ He’s always joking with me that he knows how to play [guitar]. You could see he was disappointed he wasn’t going. He still had that youthful fire in his eyes, that hunger, when talking about it. A guy that’s had a 40-year career like him, that’s played around the world and for past presidents, you’re kind of surprised that a gig can still get him that excited. But he was very excited, very honored, and bummed that he wasn’t going.
“We left Wednesday, September 21st on a 4 p.m. flight out of New Orleans. You should see the way people look at us in the airport when they see these huge boxes all wrapped up in tape with feathers falling out all over the place. And, I’m telling you, these airlines are killing us with all these luggage fees. We probably racked up $200 in baggage each way on this trip.
“[Dollis’ wife] Rita and [son] Bo were already up there to attend the Library of Congress dinner that night, as was our bass player [Thomas McDonald] and his wife. Thursday we had a walk-through rehearsal in the afternoon, then we all went out for a nice dinner together at a Mexican/Southwestern place near our hotel.
“Bo Junior said it was awkward and weird for him to be doing all this for his father, who earned the award. He said it felt odd without him there. My advice was, as a father and a son myself, that as we get older, we lose our parents. You take over their roles and I guess it gets less weird as you get older. But I totally understood where he was coming from. He handled himself great throughout everything. I thought he did a great job representing his dad and representing the tribe.
“It’s funny — we were up there for three days but performed for twelve minutes. Looking back, I see why. We’re used to festivals, where you get thrown on stage, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, and it’s fast. But this was very scripted – a teleprompter, hit-your-mark kind of thing. Nick Spitzer from the radio show ‘American Routes’ was the emcee. They were highlighting all different types of acts – dancing, quilt-making, storytelling – so there was a different approach to it than we’re used to. Being the last act, we were waiting in the back through all of it.
“The whole program lasted about two hours. It was at [The Music Center at] Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. A beautiful, new-looking theater. Similar to our Mahalia Jackson [Theater for the Performing Arts]. The crew was fantastic – from the producer all the way down to every sound tech and every assistant. All very pleasant.
“Everybody got 10 minutes and they started them all off with an interview. They asked lil’ Bo and his mom a few questions. They briefly explained Mardi Gras Indian culture, what it was about, how his dad got started. It was brief.
“I got to choose the songs with Bo Junior and we started with ‘Handa Wanda’ because it was best representative of Bo Senior, being his tune, his first recording and really what got the whole thing started. Then we did ‘Indians Here They Come’ for a second line out of the theater. Didn’t see too many hankies in the crowd, but the people that knew about it, did. The procession was led by the Indians, then all the recipients of the award. Everyone else followed.
“The other musicians knew about Mardi Gras Indians, but not really anyone else. In general, I think the whole country is a bit more knowledgeable about it since the whole ‘Treme’ show thing. But even when you live here, and you’re accustomed to it, there’s still so many questions about that community. What’s that chant about? How did this come about? What does that mean? Everyone has their own interpretation. There’s a lot of mystery, and I think that’s a part of the appeal to Mardi Gras Indians.
“After the program, they had a reception in the front lobby area. It was closed off, I guess for the big-time paying customers, the elite, people that are part of the endowment. They had a piano in there and our keyboardist Michael Burkart got on there and we all started playing. We went off on ‘Hey Pocky Way.’ We did ‘Shoo Fly (Don’t Bother Me)’ and all those New Orleans hits. Everybody was clanking bottles and singing along. People were really getting off on it. I thought that brought it back to that original spirit that you hear on Mardi Gras Day at Second and Dryades.
“The Brazilian percussion player [Carlinkos Pandeiro de Ouro] was right there with us. He was phenomenal. All these people were seriously masters of their instruments. They were all fantastic. It was interesting, all these different styles and how they blended together. There was this Bulgarian saxophonist [Yuri Yunakov]. I was especially impressed with this guitar player from Hawaii [Ledward Kaapana]; he adapted to everybody’s style really well, interweaving through everyone else’s playing. That was the most rewarding part of it. All these different walks of life, playing together.
“After the event, we played in the hotel bar until 3 a.m. They let us have the run of the place. It turned into a New Orleans kind of party. I saw an old box in the corner with a plastic bag in with some ice and beer. The bar had closed – but we brought our own.
“You hear so much about art and music being cut out of schools that it was nice to see, in some level of the government at least, that there’s still some recognition for the arts. It shows it’s alive in many forms all over the country. It was a great experience. I was just glad to be a part of it.”
For a webcast of the Washington, D.C. concert, click on the link below: