By Glenn Jones
1940’s – 1958 Big Chief Joe Le Baker
1959 – 2015 Big Chief Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis Sr.
2016 – Present Big Chief Gerard “Bo Dollis Jr.”
Past and present-day history in the making is the essence of the Black Masking Culture 42 Tribes Big Chief of the Week Series. Big Chief Gerard Bo Dollis Jr. embodies that from his lineage on both sides of his parents for three generations back in different disciplines of the New Orleans culture. Big Chief’s grandfather on his mother’s side Big Queen Laurita Barras Dollis was a founding member of Olympia Brass Band and his dad became Chief of the Wild Magnolias Tribe at the age of fifteen in 1959. After sneaking and masking with the White Eagles at thirteen and being surrounded by his father and grandfather and the Black Masking Culture, it’s obvious to see why Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. is the essence of this culture and why 42 tribes’ series is needed to document the journey of this royal family and rich New Orleans culture.
Big Chief has been trained to be a musician and Big Chief in this culture since 7th grade traveling with his father Bo Sr. to perform in Japan. After pleading with his mother and meeting her requirements of making the Honor Roll (twice) and keeping a clean room and still not getting permission, one-day Bo Jr. decided to follow in his father footsteps by making his own suit without permission from his mother. On top of all that, Bo Jr. cut up his mother’s ornamented purse that was a gift from her father Harold Dejean from his overseas travels. When Bo Sr. caught wind of this he stepped in and said he would take Bo Jr. to the bead shop. This unforgettable episode initiated the 30+ year career of Bo Jr. in Black Masking. Big Chief has spent his career refining the tribe by being military minded, instilling the history and traditions handed down to him; pushing the music into the next millennium with songs like “Cha Wah” and “Hell out the Way”. The work ethic imparted to him by his parents and this culture shines through.
Q) When did the Wild Magnolia Tribe start?
A) Everybody thinks the name came from the projects but really, it came from Magnolia Street. There was a shoe shine booth where a bunch of guys got together and were like, we need to start a Mardi Gras Indian group. So, that’s when they started Wild Magnolias. Ever since than it’s been going. So, when my dad got with the Wild Magnolias there were a whole bunch of them and they were all way older than him at fifteen. He knew how to sing, how to make his own Indian suit. So, the older guys voted him to be Big Chief, after that he didn’t stop till the day he passed. From 15 to 72 years old.
Q) What was your first memory of Black Masking Culture?
A) The first year my mom let me follow the Indians, I will never forget, my Dad wore orange that year. He was coming up Jackson Ave., they had a RTA bus behind him. Nobody saw the bus. It was St. Joseph’s Night and then the RTA bus cut on its lights. It shinned through the feathers. When you are five, you’re short, everything looks humongous to you. I heard I guy say, “Bo” crown on fire! You know at five I hear fire I’m about to cry, my daddy’s on fire. (Chief laughs hard) That was one of my greatest memories.
Q) How hard is it to establish your name in this culture with such a famous father?
A) It’s still hard, (Chief laughs) as far as my coming up and trying to have my own identity and stuff. I’m not trying to fill his shoes, I’m just trying to make them better that’s all.
Q) What is the spirit of your tribe or the spirit you mask with?
A) My spirit is just history. I try to keep the history of Mardi Gras Indians, where we came from as Indians not just Wild Magnolias. I keep the same route that my dad had. I sing Indian Red just like he sang it. So, I keep the history. It doesn’t just have to be with him even with the language. If you mask with Wild Magnolia, you can asked them. There are three pages of Mardi Gras (Black Masking) Indian language that they have to learn. My thing is really history and keeping the culture how it was. There is nothing wrong with it changing but we have a base.
Q) How far across this world has the music of this culture taken you?
A) I’ve been to Brazil, I’ve been to Australia and Finland. All that’s thanks to my dad.
Q) What is the vision for the future of Wild Magnolias and Big Chief Gerard Bo Dollis Jr.?
A) As far as the music, the highest thing I would want is a Grammy. Indian wise in three hundred years I just want the Wild Magnolia name to still be around.
Q) How big of a roll did your Queen Rita play in your development?
A) Not just my momma (Queen Rita) but all queens are the back bone of the gang. A lot of times, I can get hot headed and loose that vision, sometimes I might want to be quiet. She will be that person, that will be like “nah, what are you doing? No!” she will put you back on the right track. I’ve heard people say queens can’t mask on a certain day. I’m not going to stop my momma from masking any day. I tell her come on, and I’m right behind her! You would not have a king without a queen, so that just mean you can’t have a Chief without a Queen.