By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
No matter how good or bad a team is, no matter how good or bad the game is, two things are a given at a HBCU gameOne, someone goes home happy — after all, their team won. Two, and most important — no one goes to the bathroom during halftime.
Let’s be real here — while normal Division I school bands march — HBCU bands strut. Division I school bands sing fight songs; HBCUs live them. Division I schools play; HBCUs perform.
From the hot stepping of the drum majors, the precision of the flag bearers, and the universal sounds produced from an army of wood, brass and steel, HBCU bands have transformed halftimes into their personal 15 minutes of fame.
Although the movie “Drumline” focused on the competitive nature between schools, it is usually not considered a complete victory until the school’s band kicks butt along with the football team during the unofficial “battle of the bands” at halftime.
Of all those HBCU bands that have graced the gridiron, some have reached mythic status.
In northern Florida , you will find the capital, Tallahassee , and snakes. Children raised in Florida know early on not to walk in tall grass because a snake may be lurking. But opponents of Florida A&M University (FAMU) know a Rattler can strike anywhere.
The Green and Orange of FAMU, while just across the tracks from their Division I neighbor Florida State, has enjoyed its own niche as a HBC power, winning the inaugural Division I-AA title in 1978.
Self-proclaimed as the “marchingest, baddest, most electrifying band in the world”, the “Marching 100′s” accomplishments stand on their own as well. In 1985, FAMU was awarded the Sudler Trophy, the highest honor a collegiate marching band can receive.
Davis says many schools work the kinks out at band camp, which can sometimes be as demanding as any football practice. “We don’t practice as much — our kids are students and degrees are important. At band camp we go from 8 am to 11 pm for about three weeks, usually around the second week in August.”
While “Drumline” focused on this aspect of Black college life, Davis says the producers were about 80% right in their depiction.”Incorporating popular music has always a staple of most bands’ repertoire,” says Davis . “If it’s hot on the radio, we’ll play it. And certain bands get more play because of their style, along with fight songs and alma mater songs.”
“Many of the HBCU bands will jump on new stuff that comes out — but the better stuff that becomes standards come from the funk/jazz fusion coming from the 1970s and 1980s.” Asked who stands out among that, Davis replied, “Without a doubt, Cameo. Before they revised their group, they had 12-13 cats in their first lineup. Their horn arrangements and rhythm fit what we do like a glove.”
“We have performed to Cameo songs like “Talking out the Side of Your Neck”, “Skin I’m In”, “Knights of the Sound Table” and “Word Up” — and many other schools have as well.”
If you happen to dote on the sound coming down from Washington , D.C., then the 160- piece Howard University Showtime Band may be your on-field cup of turf. John Newson has been a band director for 35 years, and says Howard knows how to go to the go-go.
Success never spoiled Grambling. The Black and Gold have used the school’s band to gain further notoriety as a centerpiece of the university, having performed from Africa to Japan and through North America .
In 1952, then President Charles P. Adams asked Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, to start a band at the school. After establishing a line of credit through Sears & Roebuck, Jones bought instruments and started what evolved into the Tiger Marching Band.
Coupled with the success of the football program, the Tiger Marching Band is arguably the greatest collegiate marching band in the country. From recording albums, commercials (remember the Coca-Cola spot?) movie appearances, playing in the first Super Bowl (as well as SB’s IX and XX) and performing in nearly every domed and open-air stadium in North America (often times for teams other than Grambling), they epitomize the spirit of the Black college experience.