Sound Field

S3 E2 | FULL EPISODE

How Black Culture Influenced Drum line

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have heavily influenced some of today’s biggest hits. Songs like “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X and “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West wouldn’t sound the same without the catchy, marching band inspired beats.

Arthur Buckner talks to percussionist Dasmyn Grigsby about the evolution of HBCU marching bands and how they continue to influence pop culture today.

AIRED: January 12, 2022 | 0:09:48
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TRANSCRIPT

- What connects ancient African drum circles

to this Coachella performance by Beyonce?

And what do historically black colleges and universities

have to do with it?

If you've seen the 2002 film drum line,

you know this electric feeling all too well.

From hip hop inspired beats to innovative dance routines,

black colleges have been laying down classic beats

and grooves for years that set them apart from the rest.

Today, we're gonna take a look at the roots

of HBCU drum lines

and find out why this percussive party is so entertaining.

(drum rattling)

When the movie "Drumline" came out, I was in seventh grade,

And when the school had went on a field trip,

but my class wasn't going, I didn't go.

I was like, wait, I'm the drummer though, in the school.

I mean, you see, in this movie though,

I end up seeing a movie three times in the theater.

That's the one movie that

don't nobody wanna watch with me.

'Cause I'ma say every single word.

- I was in eighth grade when the movie "Drumline" came out,

I went to Chapel Hill Middle School.

Chapel Hill Middle School is the feeder

of Southwest DeKalb High School,

which is the actual band for the Atlanta AT&T Drumline,

where they were actually students that got paid

all the playing parts.

All the cadences were parts

of the Southwest DeKalb Band Program.

- That was a high school band?

- That was a high school band.

- To understand how we got here,

we have to take a look at the origin of black marching bands

as a whole.

Throughout America's military history

many African-Americans were drafted into the military

without property of career or a formal education.

The union used these black soldiers to drum up support

for the war and inspire people to enlist.

Groups of smaller military bands

would travel to community events, to play patriotic music.

They performed for malicious

to inspire them for the perils of war.

Francis Johnson was a leader amongst these men

and laid groundwork for black military musicians.

He is the first African-American to have his composition

published as sheet music.

In 1837, he was also the first African-American musician

to tour in Europe.

During the civil war,

there were around 185,000 black men enlisted

when the war ended, many uneducated black musicians

were left with nowhere to go.

So they kept doing what they knew how to do to get by.

Menstrual brass bands popped up to play music

to move and entertain the crowd.

Minstrelsy is a controversial performance form

where stereotypically African attributes

are emphasized for entertainment.

This blatantly racist form of performance

was often the only way black musicians

could earn any type of living.

By the time World War I came around

groups like the Harlem Hellfighters had emerged.

Officially known as the 369th infantry regiment.

They mainly consisted of black soldiers and recruits

from Puerto Rico.

The Hellfighters were well-known for their military band

led by James Reese Europe.

The band not only performed in battle,

but also toured Europe, playing jazz and ragtime tunes.

During the war, the Hellfighters helped introduce Europe

to black American music.

Despite the cultural importance,

the Harlem Hellfighters spent the most time

in continuous combat in any other American regimen.

They suffered the most casualties too.

But where did school marching bands come from?

For that we have to go back to after the civil war,

after emancipation schools for African-Americans

were established in the south.

Today, these institutions are called HBCU

or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In the south the music culture is so prevalent.

It's so thick.

It's still strong it's like kids can grow up,

going to see a battle of the bands

and being influenced by that.

Why do HBCU play such a big role in marching band culture?

- The history of marching band is very militant

is very straight forward, it's commands.

The military bands were there to help the military.

We've got to give credit to Dr. William Foster at Florida,

A&M really who kind of changed the way HBCU bands appear

and how they perform.

And it gives us a sense of belonging.

(trumpet buzzing)

We hear our music.

We produce our music,

but to put it on a field with live instruments

gives us that seasoning

that a lot of other bands cannot give.

- Music directors like WC Handy, and Dr. William P. Foster

shaped the early band sound

by incorporating African music traditions.

Because of segregation

these bands developed independently

and created a unique sound centered

and African-American culture.

There are three primary styles of marching bands,

military, corps and show style.

The style we're talking about today,

and the one most often used by HBCU bands is show style

also sometimes called traditional.

Show style band tradition is rooted in the foundations

of African-American music like blues and jazz.

Syncopation is the concept of this

placing the stress notes in music.

For example, Mary had a little lamb is stressed

in a classical European approach with no syncopation.

Whereas something like this cadence

has distressed on the off beats.

(drum rattling)

Call and response is the idea of musical conversation.

You play something and I play back in response to you.

This comes from traditional African drumming circles,

where the music was improvised and felt as a push and pull

between the players.

African vocality is everything you've heard in RMB, rap,

jazz, and blues, all the runs, the rhythmic speech,

the vocal effects.

This can even be felt on a drum line with no singing

through chance and call outs.

(drum rattling) (scat singing)

HBCU drum lines are also unique

with their style of composition.

If we look at the corp style, percussion battery,

only three instruments are represented, snare drum,

bass drum and multi-tom's also referred to as tenors.

The additional tenor drum

adds for a driving rapid fire middle voice,

and they use marching symbols to add some top end flair,

both audibly and visually.

You may have also noticed

that the equipment used is different.

Corp style and modern military drum lines

use rigid harnesses that make carrying

and playing the drum much easier.

HBCU drum lines, opt to use straps and slings

for an increased range of motion,

letting them incorporate dances

and physical stunts into their plane.

One staple of HBCU bands

is a dance routine called the breakdown.

Dr. William Foster of FAMU's Marching 100

laid the groundwork for the breakdown.

The breakdown is a special part of the show

where the band dances and plays a mashup

of current popular music.

Today, HBCU drum lines are thriving with dedicated events

like the Honda Battle of the Bands,

the National Battle of the Bands and other regional events.

HBCU drum lines have even influenced pop music.

So Beyonce, she pretty much raised me

like the first CD I ever bought with my own money

was writings on the wall.

But what was your reaction when Beyonce reached out to you?

- (chuckles) That's a whole story.

I'ma try to condense it.

I quit my corporate job in February, 2018.

I wasn't really being fulfilled.

So a month later I get a call from Don Roberts,

who is the owner and CEO of Drumline Live

and he says, "Hey, I have an opportunity.

"You have to leave for two months,

"but it's paid it's for a very big artists.

"I cannot tell you who it is, but I promise you,

"it will be worth it."

I said to my homeboy, I'm like,

hey man, you got that call from Don.

He's like, "Yeah, I got the call."

I was like, I haven't heard anything.

Do you know anything about it?

And he's like, "Man, all I know is for being Beyonce."

I say who?

He was like, "Yeah, it's for Beyonce."

I said, "Huh?"

I was like, "Okay."

- I have like rehearsal footage in my mind to Beyonce.

What was the energy like?

What was the vibe like?

- Honestly speaking truly and honest,

it felt like band practice every single day.

- Like Beyonce is legendary Coachella performance,

other pop stars like Lil NAS X have incorporated HBCU bands

in their art.

Right now there are 107 HBC use out of the nations,

approximately 5,300 universities.

The culture of the HBCU drum line goes hand in hand

with the plights of African-Americans today.

The constant fight to be relevant when your slice of pie

is the smallest has pushed these groups

to create something and refined much like jazz in its day,

Drumline is a cultural phenomenon.

(drum rattling)

Before you go,

I wanna tell you about a new documentary series

on PBS voices, American veteran, keep it close.

Each episode tells the story of a US military veteran

and a special object they have from their time in service,

a vial of lip gloss, a small stone, even a microphone,

check it out at the link in our description

and let them know that Sound Feel sent you.

One more thing,

we wanna invite you to take the PBS digital studios,

annual audience survey that helps us a lot

if Sound Feel fans participate.

You even get to vote on potential new shows.

There's a link in the description below.

And if you have a few minutes,

we will love your input, thanks.

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