Joe Gelini’s Grammy Roots

Sure, Kendrick Lamar got 8 Grammy nominations this year. And Drake got 7.

But here’s the “06880” news: Joe Gelini got a Grammy nomination too!

The 1995 Staples High School graduate will be in Los Angeles this February, for the the 61st annual ceremonies. “Spyboy” — the latest release from Cha Wa, the New Orleans-based Mardi Gras street culture Indian funk/brass band Gelini founded — has been nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album.

Gelini might not be the first person you’d expect to lead a Mardi Gras Indian band. He might not even be in your top 200 million.

Joe Gelini, having a good time.

So how does a white drummer from Westport — who after Staples went to Berklee College of Music in Boston — end up forming a Louisiana band that marches in Mardi Gras, and earns a Grammy regional roots nomination?

In January 1996, he traveled with his father to New Orleans for a convention. While his dad did business, Gelini headed to music venues like Le Bon Temps Roule, Tipitina’s and the Mermaid Lounge.

“The audience was just as much a part of the party as the band was,” he told the New Orleans Advocate. 

“The entire audience was involved, actively listening, dancing and partying. A seamless line went from the audience to the band. Playing in Connecticut, Boston and New York, I had never seen that before. I had never seen people in a city love the music and the culture that they were a part of so much. I was enthralled.”

Gelini skipped his Berklee finals, to return for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Wild Magnolias’ music was “on another level,” he recalls. “It felt like a spiritual thing to me, and it still does.”

Back at Berklee, he studied New Orleans legends like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. After graduation, he moved south.

At Handa Wanda’s — the Wild Magnolias’ home base — Gelini befriended Mardi Gras Indian musicians.

Mardi Gras Indian culture is a world away from Westport. Joe Gelini embraced it enthusiastically — and was welcomed in return.

According to the Advocate, Gelini wondered if his drumming tempo was correct.

The response: “Ain’t no mistakes in Mardi Gras Indian drumming.” In other words, “as long as it feels good, it’s cool.”

The Westporter slowly won over his New Orleans audiences — and musicians.

“It’s about respecting the culture and the music,” he told the Advocate. “If you’re doing it for those reasons, they’re totally accepting — I would say extraordinarily accepting. There’s no color barrier at all. If you’re there to be part of it for the right reasons, it’s all good.”

Joe Gelini has paid his dues. Soon, perhaps, the Grammy producers will give him his due.

(To stream the “Spyboy” album, click here. For Cha Wa’s website, click here. For the full New Orleans Advocate story, click here. Cha Wa’s upcoming dates include New York City’s Globalfest on January 6, and the Ridgefield Playhouse on February 27. Hat tip: Karen Romano)


7 responses to “Joe Gelini’s Grammy Roots

  1. Bravo, Joe. Harry and I were so happy to see this. Ah, we knew you when…xoxo

  2. Hurrah for Joe G! Congrats & Good Luck. Let The Good Times Roll Brutha…

  3. After viewing the video, I can fully understand why they were nominated for a Grammy. Good luck in February.

  4. Par excellence!

  5. I saw Cha Wa at the Bayou Boogaloo last May in New Orleans. I enjoyed them so much I bought “Spyboy” after their set. small world!

  6. We knew Joe growing up and always knew he would pursue his dream! One of 4 lovely young men.- The Gelini Boys
    Good luck.
    Love you,
    Pat and Sal Porio