This year’s Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival was a far cry from last year’s, when Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band had played in front of a nearly-empty VIP compound directly in front of the stage. Although this year’s acoustic stage was inside the VIP tent, non-VIPs had no problems getting access to the area for the performances, and the interaction between performers and audience was really good.
Otha Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas sponsored an End of Summer Festival yesterday at Otha’s Place on O. B. McClinton Road at Gravel Springs, which is just out from Senatobia and Como. The event featured barbecued pork and goat, and live music from the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Dr. David Evans, the D.J. Fitzgerald Band, Ruby Wilson, Leo Welch and others. The weather was perfect, and everyone had a good time.
Sharde Thomas is the granddaughter of Otha Turner, and leads her grandfathers’ Rising Star Fife and Drum Band from Gravel Springs,in Tate County, Mississippi, which would seem to be the last African-American fife-and-drum band in the country. They are frequently featured at festivals in North Mississippi, and are always a crowd favorite.
Sharde Thomas leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on stage at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park during Bristerfest in Memphis on Saturday April 27, 2013. The event was to raise money for GrowMemphis, a non-profit that helps neighborhoods in Memphis start community gardens
I have discussed Otha Turner and his granddaughter Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band elsewhere in this blog in some detail, so here it is sufficient to state that this African-American traditional music with a hundred or more years of history is preserved only by the members of one family in Tate and Panola Counties in North Mississippi, the descendants of Otha (or Othar) Turner. Since Turner’s passing, the torch has been carried by his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, a woman of immense talents as a singer, a drummer, a keyboardist and a fifer.
To those unfamiliar with the hypnotic power of African-American fife-and-drum music, the sound is far more African than nearly any other form of traditional Black music in America. Tunes are rarely fast, but the rolling waves of sound produced by the bass and snare drums create a trance-like effect, and the fife, generally homemade out of bamboo or sugar cane, is played far differently from the traditional military or marching band usage.
The origin of such Black fife-and-drum bands is not at all certain. There is some evidence that Mississippi allowed Black drummers in the militia units even during the time of slavery. It is certain that during Reconstruction, many of the Black mutual aid organizations and lodges had drummers. Drummers are particularly mentioned in connection with processions of the Memphis-based Independent Pole-Bearers Society, which was a lodge. What appears evident, however, is that African-Americans in the post-Civil-War south saw in the fife-and-drum bands, with their patriotic and military associations, a “cover” for clandestine practices that seemed more African in nature. Observers at rural fife-and-drum picnics have described incidents in which dancers seemed to ritually salute the drums (a practice common in Haiti and West Africa), or in which the dancing seemed to take on something of a sexually suggestive nature (also found in Haiti and West Africa).
However, the African-American fife and drum tradition has been in steady decline since the first field recordings of such bands were made in the 1950’s. By the early 1970’s, only two places in the United States were known to have such bands, one in North Mississippi, and one in Georgia. By the 1980’s, the phenomenon could only be found in Mississippi, and by the 1990’s, only in Otha Turner’s family.
Despite the basic, sparse sound of bass drum, snares and fife, the Bristerfest crowd on Saturday loved every minute of the Rising Star’s performance. The rain had ended, and the crowd had grown to well over a hundred people.