Although perhaps more R&B than jazz, one of the most distinctive features of the New Orleans musical landscape is the ritual observance of Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day by the so-called Mardi Gras Indians. The tradition of African-Americans masked in feathers has been traced back as far as the 18th century, but the organization of marching clubs following that practice probably dates from 1885, when the participation in Mardi Gras parades of Native Americans in full regalia from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show caused a sensation. The Mardi Gras Indians are thus not unlike the various marching clubs that parade annually in New Orleans, but their outfits and musical style are unique. Chanting a traditional repertoire sung in a patois that can be traced back to the Haitian origins of many black New Orleanians, the Indians use only percussion for musical accompaniment — drums, tambourines, cowbells, and rattles — as they play the streets of their designated neighborhoods. In the past, borderlines between these areas could be the scene of bloodshed. These are now replaced by staged mock-combat tableaus that show off the elaborate handmade costumes. An entourage of "spy boys" clears the way for the tribes, whose dancing, chanting, and outfits become the deciding factors in who "backs down." Although it has evolved into a friendly competition, the ritual is taken very seriously: individual members can spend upwards of a thousand dollars on their costumes, which take a full year's work to prepare.
The Wild Magnolias, led by Big Chief Bo Dollis since 1964, are one of many tribes, divided into "uptown" and "downtown" factions. Some of the other tribes are the Black Eagles, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Gorden Star Hunters, Creole Wild West, Creole Osceolas, and the Golden Eagles, to name a few. Like the brass bands, the Indians attract a "second line" of dancers who become a part of the progression. The Wild Magnolias were the first to release a recording, "Handa Wanda," as early as 1970, but the street music played by the Indians does not follow the same instrumentation or interpretation heard on such recordings, which are specially made for the popular market. Even so, the music of the Wild Magnolias, whether on the street or on disc, defies the listener to keep still. As is the case with most New Orleans music, it is made for dancing. The spirit of the Mardi Gras Indians has influenced New Orleans musicians from Jelly Roll Morton through Professor Longhair and constitutes another of the enduring elements that has shaped this wonderfully distinctive and musical regional culture.