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West Baltimore marching band shapes the next generation of an African-American tradition

For The Baltimore Sun
Marching bands have been a staple in Baltimore's African-American communities for more than a century.

On a recent summer morning, this tiny town was jolted from stillness when the syncopated rhythms played on drums by black boys and men rumbled through its streets. The drummers marched and sweated, their white shakos insufficient shields from the oppressive heat.

In front of them, a group of female dancers clad in white boots and turquoise leotards, bright blue feathers affixed to their elaborate hairdos, twirled, kicked and chanted with pompoms in their hands. The youngest girls, just 5 years old, struggled with the complex steps, but any deficits in skill were overshadowed by sass.

The spectators, who stood in front of large single-family homes, cheered and clapped in approval. The Band Marching Unit, a group from West Baltimore, had hijacked the quiet Peach Festival parade and turned it into an all-out spectacle.

Founded in 2011 by Baltimore native Dawn Barnes, 44, and Charles Hostler, 39, originally from West Virginia, The Band has close to 50 members and rehearses twice a week for hours inside the aged gymnasium of Sarah M. Roach Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore. It's where they had assembled at 6 that morning to travel to Delaware.

In Baltimore, marching bands have thrived for decades. They're part of a rich tradition within African-American culture that exists in various permutations across the United States; the best-known are associated with historically black colleges and universities and the second line in New Orleans.

The community bands in Baltimore aren't attached to institutions and tend to include just the drumline and a group of dancers called the drill team. Most follow traditional gender roles, with female members dancing and their male counterparts playing instruments. They are often led by people who are propelled by a sense of duty and a determination to shield children from negative influences, give them an avenue to cultivate their talents and offer them a chance to see a world beyond their city.

Today, these bands, which have been a source of community, face a threat because of the low incomes of some of their members and lack of financial backing, organizers say.

Though running a band is fraught with difficulties, organizers say it provides an essential outlet for its young members.

"Sometimes you really don't know what went on with that kid before they got to band practice. You don't know what will happen with them when they leave practice," said Barnes. "Sometimes band practice is absolutely the highlight of their day."

For 15-year-old Victoria Moore, band practice is where she can dance off her frustrations.

"When I get to practice, it relieves stress, especially when I hear the drums," she said.

At rehearsals, Barnes may be found with a baby on her hip, speaking to a parent on her cellphone. She may instruct a drummer to repeat a flourish until it's perfect or delegate drills to teenage band members to teach to the younger kids. Her trademark whistle hangs around her neck, though a stern look or pithy rebuke is often sufficient enough to restore order among the drummers, who range in age from 7 to 30.

Hostler sits quietly at the back of the gym, registering members, studying the band's finances and selling snacks to help raise money. He's inconspicuous and only noticeable because he's the sole white man in the room. Often, when the children have a question or concern, they'll look for "Mr. Charlie."

Hostler and Barnes have full-time jobs, and the band they run with co-director Evan Smith takes up most of the remaining space in their lives.

Hostler has found involvement in the band rewarding and challenging.

"It's not the safest neighborhood. There are a lot of temptations out there. It's easy to go on the corner and hustle," he said. "We try and instill in them not to make those choices."

He said the most fulfilling moments are often off stage, such as witnessing the awe on a child's face as she saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time on a recent trip to New York.

According to Tulane University professor Matthew K. Sakakeeny, an ethnomusicologist and expert on marching band culture in New Orleans, bands like this are the result of ancient musical traditions from Africa, where for centuries, percussive drums and exuberant dance steps have been married as expressions of joy and pain.

Baltimore has a long marching band history. In 1870, when freed black men were given the right to vote, the city had one of the largest parades in the country to celebrate the 15th Amendment. According to the May 20, 1870, edition of The New York Times, "There were seven full bands in the procession, beside a number of drum corps." Today, Baltimore is home to popular bands like the East Coast Westsiders and New Edition Marching Band, founded in 1985 by Anna Elizabeth Hart. Both bands have robust memberships and are known in other cities.

Sakakeeny said his research in New Orleans has shown these bands engender a tremendous amount of good in communities and create a profound sense of accomplishment. And in impoverished areas where music funding has been cut from school budgets, they play a critical educational as well as social role.

"They're teaching kids formal music and dance training," said Sakakeeny. "A lot of people presume that black music and black culture is free and you can do what you want. It takes practice, and it takes intellect — you can't just do it."

While the band members put in a great deal of work and the directors carry many burdens, they don't operate in isolation. Their greatest support often comes from parents, grandparents and guardians who value these bands and want them to survive.

Sydney Tarleton, 51, is a foster parent to his granddaughters, Amani, 6, and Madasyn, 9, who dance on the drill team. He attends every practice with his grandson and two nephews, who play the cymbals. He carries their snacks and water in case they're thirsty midperformance, and gives an encouraging squeeze on the shoulder when nerves set in. He's grateful to Barnes and Hostler for all their work because it allows him to travel with his family.

"It's like a minivacation for us," he said. "We have fun along with them."

This sense of gratitude was echoed by Althea Oliver, 49, who fosters granddaughter Morgan Walker, 8. Morgan suffers because of her biological mother's absence from her life, Oliver said.

"She's been struggling. The band really helps her. It's an outlet for her and helps her release some things she may be feeling, instead of sitting at home," Oliver said.

Oliver said she and Morgan have found a family in the band.

Elizabeth C. Fine, a professor emerita of humanities* at Virginia Tech, has done extensive research on African-American folklore with an emphasis on the dances practiced by black sororities and fraternities, and said the family bond that band members feel is rooted in something real: Synchronized movement that requires repetition and intense rehearsal forms psychological and physical bonds in groups.

"When they are doing that, they are greater than one person," she said. "They are part of something larger than themselves, and that's powerful."

In many ways, Brian McKethan, 28, a leading member of the drumline, is evidence of how powerful it can be in the long term. A tall, hefty man with a deep voice, the self-taught drummer grew up in West Baltimore and says being in the "band world" meant he made better choices. Many of the neighbors he grew up with are either dead or in jail, he said.

McKethan has two degrees and works as a commercial diving supervisor. At band practice, he often teaches the younger boys how to drum. His dad died when he was a child, and he knows that having male mentors is particularly important.

For band members who come from two-parent homes, being in the band isn't a financial burden. But for parents with multiple children in the band and one source of income, the cost of the trips can create a strain. Bus fares for trips out of town can be up to $45, and although Barnes and Hostler sponsor a meal on trips that are over two days, the cost of hotels is too much for some families to shoulder.

They use creative ways to relieve the burden and ensure no child is left out. They fundraise constantly, change uniforms infrequently, mending rather than replacing worn clothing, and apply for grants. The few they've won have offered temporary respite.

Despite the pressures, Barnes and Hostler have no intention of stopping. For Barnes, the children are her fuel.

"I love them. I love the group. I love marching," she said. "The good, the bad, all of it."

After the parade is over, the band explores Delaware for an hour, and when they get on the bus back to Baltimore, it isn't long before most of them are asleep.

Barnes and Hostler, however, are alert. They sit at the front of the bus and plan their next trip.

*Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Elizabeth C. Fine's title at Virginia Tech. Fine is a professor emerita in humanities.

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Upcoming performances

Oct. 8: Nace's Day Parade, 1 p.m., starting at 29186 Maple Ave. in Trappe, Talbot County

Oct. 15: Northwood Rams football game, 10 a.m. at Clifton High School, 2801 Saint Lo Drive in Baltimore

Oct. 22: Under Armour Friends and Family Day at M&T Bank Stadium, 1101 Russell St. in Baltimore

Oct. 29: Hagerstown Mummer's Parade, 6 p.m. in downtown Hagerstown

For more on The Band, search "'The Band' Marching Unit" on Facebook.