In the field of Black music worldwide, no other musical instrument is as important as the drums. Not only is percussion the musical foundation for much Black music and dance, but the instrument looms large in the cultural memory of people throughout the African diaspora. So it was only fitting for Arkansas’ best drummers to be honored at an event called The Drummer Is In The House, which was held at the Revolution Room on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market area of Little Rock on Thursday July 10. The event, sponsored by Clifford Drummaboy Aaron, featured performances by current and former Little Rock drummers Yvette Preyer, Rod Pleasants, Steve Bailey, Aerion Jamaal Lee, Jonathan “JJ” Burks and Charles Anthony Thompson. Rather than just a lot of extended solos, most of the drummers played with their individual bands, and even some singers, performing songs from the neo-soul, jazz and gospel traditions. But there were great solos too, including one from Jamaal Lee full of afro-caribbean rhythms and patterns, and one from Charles Anthony Thompson exhibiting extended sticking and tone techniques including pitch bends, and plenty of jazz influence. The final highlight of the evening was an event called the Roundabout, at which drummers moved across the stage from the first drum set, to the second, to the third, while Yvette Preyer kept a basic conga pattern for them on an octapad. As one drummer would exit the stage, another would come on from the left, enabling all the drummers to have an opportunity to shed three at a time, and to play each of the three drum sets. The Drummer Is In The House was truly a major event that highlighted some really great drummers, and a lot of other great horn players, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and singers. I am told that future events will be held at the Revolution Room to highlight the other instrument families, and I am looking forward to it.
There is a Black marching band tradition which is distinct from its white equivalent, despite points of similarity, and, not surprisingly, that tradition is deeply loved in Memphis. In fact, the city has had some legendary band directors, including Jimmie Lunceford, the internationally-known big band star who was Manassas High School’s first band director, or Emerson Able, also at Manassas, or W. T. McDaniel at Booker T. Washington or Tuff Green at Melrose High School. Memphis musicians routinely enrich the Black college marching bands at Pine Bluff or Jackson State or Tennessee State. But the band culture doesn’t end during the summer, either, as there are alumni bands like the Memphis Mass Band, comprised of former HBCU band members, as well as current musicians home from college for the break, and perhaps a few high school students as well, and these summer aggregations battle each other during the summer months. This past weekend, the Memphis Mass Band battled its Birmingham equivalent, the Magic City All-Stars Band at Oakhaven Stadium during what was billed as the HBCU Alumni Weekend. About a hundred or more people turned out to see these two all-star bands battle, and I was impressed with the quality of both bands. The Memphis Mass Band was the larger of the two, but both groups had great arrangements, and a tightness and togetherness that I don’t always hear in established college bands. And the arrangements were largely unfamiliar to me and fresh. The Memphis band’s unexpected reading of Johnnie Taylor’s “Running Out of Lies” was definitely the high point in my opinion. I might add that despite a lot of trash talk between the bands, there was not one untoward incident. Just good fun and great music.
Although many writers and scholars refer to the African-American tribes of “Indians” in New Orleans as “Mardi Gras Indians”, I have chosen not to, due to the inaccuracy of the term. For one thing, the men do not refer to themselves in that way. They simply call themselves “Indians” and their organizations “tribes” or more often “gangs”. For another, “Mardi Gras Indians” suggests that these organizations are functional one day a year, when in reality their activity is nearly year-round in scope, involving sewing of costumes and weekly rehearsals. The Indian gangs are visible to the public on Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph’s Day, and since the early 1970’s, also on the Uptown and Downtown Super Sundays. They have also become a fixture at each year’s Jazz Fest, and are more visible on stage at other times of year. So, for the lack of a better term, I have chosen the designation “Black Indians”, the name given to similar groups in Trinidad as the most descriptively accurate term possible, and so as to avoid confusion with Native Americans or with people from India.
These men, member of various Black Indian “tribes” in New Orleans, practice their chants during a stop on the Money Wasters second-line route, Sunday 5/26/13
Black Indians chanting during a stop along the Money Wasters second-line route, Sunday 5/26/13
This painting of a Black Indian Wildman was on the door of a house along the parade route for the Money Wasters second-line. In the Black Indian gangs of New Orleans, the “Wildman” is one of the “offices” of the tribe, along with the “flag boy”, “spy boy”, “trail chief” and “big chief.” On Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Night, these men perform certain functions related to the ways in which tribes encounter each other and how they ritually battle through chanting and dance.
DJ Paul Vol. 16 Release Party @ Juicy J’s Place, 1994