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Stepping Tall 

Black college marching band competitions combine top musicianship, dance and contemporary hip hop and rap

For many football fans, halftime is an opportunity to stretch your legs, visit the restroom, and grab some grub to hold you over for another two quarters of bone-crunching action. This is not the case, however, for most Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's). For black college fans, halftime is when you skip the bathroom break, ditch the hot dogs, and scramble for a seat to assure that you don't miss the other intense bout: the battle between the bands.

For those 15 to 20 minutes, these musical athletes take turns executing precision drills, high-step marching and stop-the-show dance routines with one goal in mind: to win the most "house" (that's "crowd participation" for you non-bandheads). With the home band doing everything within its ability to keep the visiting band from "stealing its crowd," these competitions are fierce; they also serve as a way to showcase the school's finest and freshest musical and dance talent.

The upcoming First Annual North Carolina Super Band Battle, featuring six of the area's best HBCU marching bands, is the first area event that gives bands a chance to compete, without the "distraction" of a football game.

"We wanted to have an event that showed off the HBCU's and helped with recruitment for their prospective schools," says event coordinator Rodney Chambers. As one of the largest and most visible student organizations on most HBCU campuses, marching bands are important and effective recruiting tools.

John Philip Sousa meets P. Diddy as the bands seamlessly blend traditional European marching tunes with contemporary hip-hop and R&B arrangements. Music and dance are synonymous--one virtually an expression of the other. This rhythmic emphasis is realized in the HBCU field-show choreography during what is known as "the freak"--a collage of hip-hop and rap tunes to which the entire band bumps, grinds, hops, kicks, nods, stomps, shouts and moves their bodies in a dance breakdown. (To insure that the material is fresh and current, committees of band members are allowed to choose the tunes and dances.) The "freak," an element unique to HBCU marching bands, is performed primarily to engage the crowd, creating an effervescent energy unrivaled in other (non-HBCU) marching band traditions.

Because the audiences expect new, creative and entertaining shows, the bands continually reinvent themselves, pushing the limits of showmanship while simultaneously trying to out-march, out-blow and out-dance the other band. And if that doesn't work, there's always theatrics, like the time the "Marching Wildcats" of Daytona Beach's Bethune-Cookman College came to Greensboro to battle N.C. A&T's "Blue and Gold Marching Machine" on their Homecoming. Dr. Hodge, N.C. A&T's Director of Bands, had arranged for his head drum major, Blu Thompson, to fake an illness at the beginning of halftime and be dramatically taken off the field in full view of the bands and crowd. Bethune-Cookman played first. Towards the conclusion of their performance, the band found themselves in the shadow of a helicopter hovering overhead. Spectators watched in awe as the helicopter landed on the 50-yard line, then the crowd went wild when Thompson jumped out, did a funky dance, and proceeded to lead his band's halftime performance.

But the HBCU tradition is not just about dancing and pageantry; it's about musicianship. "Any Saturday you can be blown away, colloquially speaking, and you have to be prepared," Hodge says. "It's basically a war for 15 to 20 minutes during every football game, because the other band is going to try to be better than you are. It's just a matter of being the one who is the most prepared and the most focused."

Preparation, in the case of N.C. A&T, involves practicing and conditioning five times a week during the fall semester, during which time band members are expected to learn up to 107 different musical pieces that make up "the book." Each band has its own book--its ammunition, so to speak. This collection ranges from technical marches, concert and show tunes to contemporary soul, funk, hip-hop and R&B arrangements. Band members are responsible for memorizing the book over the course of the season, and should be able, when called upon, to recite any of its tunes without difficulty.

Besides the halftime field event, sections of the home band--the trumpets, trombones, drummers and tubas--take turns challenging the visiting band's sections by launching "punches" back and forth at one another across the field during the first, second and fourth quarters. "Punches" are short musical pieces that draw on American pop culture: You'll hear everything from television and movie themes--those from What's Happening and Sanford and Son to Superman and Star Wars--to pieces inspired by sports news and events, like the Olympics, Wimbledon and ESPN. The more creative and familiar the music is to the general audience, the more lethal the "punch." The goal of these sectional battles is to throw the most "punches" (without repeating them) and to play them better than your opponent--again, the emphasis is on ingenuity as well as musicality.

Whereas the halftime performances are aimed at pleasing the crowd, the "fifth quarter" contest, an after-game event that includes the entire band, is just for the musicians. The bands remain facing across from each other in their respective stands, while the fans filter down onto the field between them. They then take turns playing full musical scores until one team gives in and leaves their stand, a battle that can last for hours--until the lights are turned out or the cops ask them to quit.

The fifth quarter, reminiscent of the jazz band battles at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the '30s and '40s, allows both the bands and their directors to square off and see which are the better musicians. You need a diverse and expansive repertoire that can be played flawlessly--a performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" may be answered by Petey Pablo's "Raise Up." During a single fifth-quarter competition, you might hear a march by Edwin Goldman, a jazz composition by John Williams, an overture by Giuseppe Verdi, a soul classic by James Brown, a R&B tune by Janet Jackson and a hip-hop song by Master P. The HBCU tradition, by emphasizing a mastery of musical genres from classical to contemporary, celebrates the diversity of musical traditions influencing our American identities--with and without the hyphen.

Part of the fun is the taunts and gesturing used to spice up the competitions. Howard University's entire band once pulled out newspapers and acted as if they were reading them while N.C. A&T played a song during a fifth quarter. A band might lay down their instruments and pretend to fall asleep while the rival band plays their piece--it's all part of the spirit of the competition, the spirit that drives the HBCU bands towards excellence. EndBlock

Whether you're a HBCU "bandoholic" or if you just want to witness a thrilling musical experience, check out the First Annual North Carolina Super Band Battle. The schools representing are: Howard University's "Showtime" band from Washington, D.C.; North Carolina Central University's "Sound Machine" from Durham; Winston-Salem State's "Marching Ram Band"; Virginia State University's "Trojan Explosion" from Petersburg, Va.; Johnson C. Smith University's "International Institution of Sound," from Charlotte; and North Carolina A&T State University's "Blue and Gold Marching Machine," from Greensboro.

The event will allow bands a chance to go head-to-head without the "distractions" of the football game (no referees itching to throw a flag on account of noise from the band). The gates open at 5:30 p.m. and the event begins at 6 p.m. this Sunday, Oct. 21 at the Durham County Stadium. Tickets are $15, available at the gate. Capacity is 5000, so you might want to arrive early. For more information visit superbandbattle@aol.com.

More by William Lewis

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