"The music is the most visceral part of being in Louisiana. I had goosebumps the entire time during the battle of the bands [between Grambling State University and Southern University]. The bands so often have to be perfect, but during the competition, with the light low, they were able to let loose and enjoy themselves. They deserve it. They're overworked. When there was a big horn part, the drums would start acting out, and messing around. It looked much more like a party. There's a shared pride to Historical Black Colleges [HBCUs] that make this rivalry different. Your average college rivalry can be jingoistic. But I don't think it's romanticism to say, 'oh it's different because it's a black school'—it really is different, and fortunately in a really cool way." - Fernando Perez, host, VICE World of Sports
Bayou Classic By the Numbers
Louisiana State Population: 4,670,724
Area: 51,843 sq mi
Land Loss: 1 football field of wetlands per hour
Grambling Student Population Loss from 2013 to 2014: 11.8 percent
Southern University Average Annual Student Population Loss from 2006 to 2012: 6 percent
Money that the Bayou Classic Brings to New Orleans: $50 million
Viewers on national TV: 4 million
Sport and Society
The Bayou Classic, aka the Black Super Bowl, takes place in New Orleans the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year and is one of college sports' most historic rivalries. Set between Louisiana-based historical black colleges Grambling State University and Southern University, the Classic dates back to 1974. As of last year, the teams are at a dead-even split at 21 wins a piece. But what takes place within four quarters is nothing compared to what happens the night before game and at halftime: The Battle of the Bands.
While their football teams rarely rank within the nation's top 128, both schools' bands are considered to be the best marching bands in the world. Between the two of them, they have played for three presidential inaugurations and seven Super Bowl halftime shows—including Super Bowl I. This is Louisiana, after all, so it's more than just a little "toot toot toot," as Southern's band director Nathan B. Haymer said. The battle of the bands is the big game.
So what makes music so important down on the Bayou? First of all, Louisiana is considered to be the birthplace of jazz. As early as 1843, in New Orleans' Congo Square on the weekends, slaves joined up with freed slaves in a gathering that harkened back to musical traditions in Africa. Call and response mixed with drums and European brass, creating a whole new improvisational genre that would later develop greats like New Orleans' own Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Wynton Marsalis—the list goes on.
So-called "funerals with music" subsequently emerged as a mixture of colonial traditions with East African Yoruban traditions and Voodoo, where death was treated more as a celebration of life. The colonial military marches transformed into a dance in the streets alongside the casket, with a full brass band playing anything from mournful waltzes to blaring joyous anthems. The brass band was considered to be the "second line" behind the casket, and soon enough, people were holding second lines—jazz funerals without a body—for black social clubs and various other celebratory occasions.
So you can imagine that school marching band culture in Louisiana might carry some more weight than your run-of-the-mill versions of "Let's Go Band." Across Louisiana, marching bands participate in Mardi Gras—when dozens of schools showcase arrangements in front of huge crowds, usually saving their best numbers for a spot under highway 10, where the sound resonates under the concrete. More often than not, Grambling and Southern band alumni end up directing these bands, and feed their alma mater with new recruits.
Catching Up With…
In our Bayou Classic episode, host Fernando Perez met with various members from both bands, but perhaps no one is more spirited and deeply tied with the schools than the Grambling band's very own Master of Ceremonies Leon Thomas III. Thomas has been the MC for the Grambling band for four years—his duties involve calling out the songs and formations over the loudspeaker during games—but his Grambling roots go way back. Aside from going to Grambling-affiliated schools since he was in elementary school—he speaks fondly of posters of football players and band dancers on his wall when he was a kid—his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all attended the university. We caught up with Thomas for some more background on the band.
What is it like to be on the field for the Battle of the Bands?
This past year, 2015, was my first time actually being on the field during the battle of the bands to witness it. And the feeling is almost indescribable. To be in front of that audience, to hear all of those cheers, and to see the joy and excitement of the fans in the stands. And when you start seeing people who are fans of the opposing band dancing and singing as your band is playing, it's almost like being at Showtime at the Apollo, and people who you expected to boo, started cheering for you. It is a huge feeling of accomplishment to put it mildly.
And I think that the fans who come to HBCU halftime to games are literally living for halftime—my grandmother was one. She lived for halftime. To see the showmanship, and you watch these bands perform, they are in unison, they are hip, they are very crisp, their dance moves are very crisp. The intricacies, when they spell out words and make designs and do out numbers, it takes a lot of practice, and to see these young people have this much dedication, this much focus for about eight minutes, it's amazing.
Has the football team always had a band?
Yes, sir. The band director Dr. Conrad Hutchinson was brought along, and it was really through his vision that he created the ultimate HBCU show band. And the history of Grambling State University's band lives on today primarily because of all the innovative ideas that Dr. Hutchinson brought to the band. Any conversation about marching bands and show bands begins and ends with Grambling State University and Dr. Conrad Hutchinson. He is pretty much the James Naismith of HBCU marching bands.
What are the roots of HBCU bands?
When you start talking about HBCU bands, a lot of our history dates back to Africa, where drums were a big part of celebration, and communicating with one another. Dances go along with that celebration. There is musical celebration that is accompanied with movement of the body, the dance that goes along with it. For bands, for show bands in Louisiana, it is literally that it is a show. The songs that you play are not only there to showcase your talent and your expertise in crafting these songs, but also you can add an innovative twist depending on how talented your composers are in the band.
What's the difference between Southern and Grambling's styles?
It's got to fit your sound. It's like having two musicians playing the same song. I'm a big hip hop fan, and the song's gonna have a different sound if it's a Snoop track versus a Nas track. Grambling and Southern could play the same song, but you will immediately recognize whose is whose. Grambling's music has more nuances, whereas Southern's has more power. They are a very powerful band. Grambling lends itself to being a little more jazzy, if you will.
What is it like being on the inside of the competition between these two schools?
The competition between the bands is as deep as the competition between the football teams. And the reason being is that you have schools that are separated by five-to-six hours. You have literally families competing against one another. You could have one cousin in Grambling's band vs. a cousin in Southern's band. It's the richest rivalry, in my opinion, in college sports, because you start competing with the other institution when you're in high school. But anyone you spend every Thanksgiving with, that's family.
Where are these band members from? What kind of background?
A lot of these kids march in bands throughout the south—these high school bands. A lot of them have band directors who have marched and played in either of the respective bands. So a lot of them are already indoctrinated into the Grambling marching and performing style and the Southern marching and performing style. A lot of these kids, just like the athletes, are in high school with aspirations for marching in these bands. A lot of these guys who are band directors, who are alums, they may work in high schools as high school band directors, so they might have a connection to that circuit, just like coaches, that'll call you and say, "Hey man, I've got a trumpet player that I think would be great for you. A kid like this needs a scholarship." Even the Bayou Classic is a recruiting tool.
What are some of the difficulties of recruiting for HBCU's—for bands, students and athletes?
Years ago, your top black athletes were coming to these two institutions. And now you've got your kind of second-tier athletes because the larger schools are snatching up the blue chippers. I can understand that. The purpose for going to college is to give yourself a better life. I played basketball, and if Dean Smith called, I would have had to leave. Dick Vitale would be saying my name every Saturday. And for students, when you've got a blue chip kid with an opportunity to go to an Ivy League school, it's hard. As a parent, you have to look at the opportunity that your child would be provided across the board. If you're choosing between Ohio State, and Grambling, if you don't have a connection to the HBCU experience, it's pretty much a hard sell. Then you've got to look at the money, in terms of scholarship. College is very expensive, and you're taking a kid who has to come out of pocket a little bit vs. a kid who doesn't have to pay out of pocket at all.
What makes the HBCU experience important?
The historically black college has its place—in the same place that it always had. There are only a few OJ Simpsons and Jim Browns and Cornell Wests in the world that have the opportunity and the academic prestige and prowess to attend and excel in universities that don't cater specifically to black students. But what the HBCU does from an academic perspective, an athletic perspective, and as well as a marching and performing band perspective, is that it takes that piece of coal and then molds it into a diamond, as opposed to taking the already perfected diamond, and putting it on display. I've always referred to HBCUs as Historically Black Communities. There were no throw-aways. It's like making gumbo. You don't throw anything away. You throw everything in the pot, and it makes for a delicious stew. And I think that's what the HBCU does.
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