Her name is Sharde Thomas and most of the time she's a normal 16-year-old who attends high school in the tiny north Mississippi town of Coldwater. She does have, you might say, an unusual avocation. Thomas is the leader of the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. She may also be the last living exponent of a musical style that has survived essentially unchanged since post-Civil War Reconstruction.
"When I was 7, I wanted to play the fife," Thomas says shyly over her home phone. Thomas is the granddaughter of Otha Turner, the former leader of the Rising Star band, who, until his death in 2003, was the face of fife and drum music. "I just went and got [Otha's] fife and started practicing."
Grandpa showed her some fingering, but Thomas mostly learned by watching and doing. Turner let her perform at picnics where fife and drum music often provides the entertainment, on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
These days, Thomas' gigs are infrequent. Her band is a regular at the Sunflower River Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., where the quartet leads a parade through the streets of town to the main stage. "It's celebration music, party music," says festival organizer Roger Stolle. "It's the kind of thing people at the festival aren't accustomed to hearing, so it gets them moving and smiling."
Stylistically, Mississippi fife and drum music has little in common with the sort of martial sounds that bring to mind muskets and three-corner hats. The music has passed through generations of African-American families and, although regarded as a prime rhythmic influence on the blues, the micro-genre itself has not changed much at all. The Rising Star group, like fife and drum bands before it, includes a bass and two snare drums, both strapped to the players march-style. Then there's Thomas, who plays a homemade bamboo flute. The fife emits crude, whistle-like tones, while the drums roil with undulating rhythms that bear clear vestiges of Africa.
During the Revolutionary War, African slaves were barred from carrying arms but were allowed to perform in military bands. After emancipation, they continued the fife and drum tradition, adding their own African-derived influences. By the early 1900s, the number of performers had dwindled, and the tradition stayed alive almost exclusively in north Mississippi.
Thomas has vague ideas of modernizing the music, but she's yet to make a recording. She knows of no other fife and drum bands around and no other youngsters looking to take up the music, but she can't seem to fathom that she could be the last purveyor of a dying musical tradition.
"I hope I'm not the last," she says.
For your ears (and eyes):
• Otha Turner & the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band: Everybody Hollerin' Goat (Birdman)
• Otha Turner & the Afrossippi Allstars: From Senegal to Senatobia (Birdman)
• Martin Scorcese Presents: Feel Like Going Home (DVD, Vol. 1 of The Blues)
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