When The Village Voice described New Orleans’ Soul Rebels as “the missing link between Louis Armstrong and Public Enemy,” they got it only half right. The Soul Rebels were deeply influenced by hip-hop, but Armstrong? Not so much. The Voice overlooked a more relevant phenomenon: Marching bands. The marching show bands represent and animate the campuses and stadiums of roughly 100 institutions of higher education, all established before the Civil Rights Movement and collectively known today as Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs. The world of HBCU marching bands surfaced in mainstream American culture in the 2002 film Drumline.
The modern HBCU style—expertly choreographed march routines executed with high-stepping style to intricate band arrangements of pop tunes running the gamut from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson to the Black-Eyed Peas—originated in the 1950s with Florida A&M University and band director Dr. William P. Foster. Even though his first band consisted of only 16 members, Foster’s vision and determination led him to name the Florida A&M unit “The Marching 100.” When Florida A&M performed at the French Bicentennial in July 1989 (where they included a James Brown tune in their repertoire), Foster described the essential elements of the HBCU marching band aesthetic to The New York Times: “People want to hear the songs they hear on the radio,” he said. “It gives them an intimate relationship with you. And then there’s the energy. Lots of energy. In playing and marching. Dazzle them with it.”
In its obituary for Foster in 2010, The New York Times summarized Foster’s influence: “High school and college marching bands all across the country drew their inspiration from the Florida A&M style.” Among them were St. Augustine High School’s “Marching 100” in New Orleans and Southern University’s “Human Jukebox” in Baton Rouge.
The Soul Rebels’ Unlock Your Mind is due out this month, and founders and co-leaders Lumar LeBlanc and Derrick Moss show the HBCU influence. They were recruited more than 20 years ago to form the percussive backbone of the Young Olympians Brass Band, but they shared a desire to re-engineer the New Orleans brass band for the world of urban contemporary music. All eight current members graduated from New Orleans high school marching bands: four from St. Aug, two from Sarah T. Reed, and one each from Alcee Fortier and John F. Kennedy high schools. The current band contains two alumni from Southern University’s “Human Jukebox,” one from Texas Southern University’s “Ocean of Soul,” and another from Jackson State’s “Sonic Boom of the South.”
What was the New Orleans high school marching band scene like when the two of you were coming up in the 1980s?
Lumar LeBlanc: It was like the twilight of the golden era of school-based music programs in the city. At that time in New Orleans, the high-school band directors were our legends. You had Edward Hampton at St. Augustine, where a lot of us went. You had Mr. Donald Richardson at A.J. Bell, Mr. [Elijah] Brimmer at Fortier, Mr. [Herman] Jones at McDonogh 35. Before you could even think about playing in the marching band back then, you had to play in the symphonic band, and that’s where you learned all the formal musical terminology and formal musical structure. For that, there were complete music programs at these schools that exposed you to all kinds of music, everything from Tchaikovsky and Beethoven to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and then to Quincy Jones, and Quincy brings you to Michael Jackson. From there, it’s just a step or two to hip-hop. All of these band directors exposed us to the whole spectrum of music, and to the complexities of really sophisticated music.
Derrick Moss: In fifth grade at Lafayette Elementary, I started to learn how to read music. When I got to seventh grade, I went to McMain, which at the time was a magnet school for college prep students. They only had a concert band; they didn’t have a marching band like they do today, and you had to read music really well to be considered for the concert band. By my sophomore year, I had become section leader and played the drum set plus every percussion instrument. Then I transferred to Fortier High School, which was right up the street from McMain. McMain was a very serious, very academic school, and I wanted to be at a school that had more of a social atmosphere. At the time, a lot of my friends were transferring to Fortier and there were a lot of people from my neighborhood in Hollygrove that went to Fortier.
Fortier had a really good marching band, which was a big part of it. All my friends were marching in the Mardi Gras parades, and they all had football games to go to on Friday night. I wanted to perform at half-time, and march in the parades. Being in the band at the time was like being a movie star, and I wanted to be a part of it.
I already had musical training from McMain, but what we learned in the marching band was how to take any song of any style and arrange it for horn sections. When I graduated in ’84, I wanted to go to Southern University because a lot of my family members had gone there. The year I went, a whole bunch of us from Fortier went. There had already been some guys from Fortier, graduates who’d gone there and brought a more funky style of drum section arranging to Southern. In both bands, they named the drum section The Funk Factory. Fortier really had an effect on the Southern band during those years because so many of us were going there. There were very few St. Aug graduates in the band, almost none that I can remember.
LeBlanc: A lot of us from St. Aug were being recruited by Texas Southern. The Houston Oilers came to play the Saints one year in the early ‘80s, and St. Aug played the halftime show in the Superdome. The Oilers were so impressed with the band that when the Saints went to play the Oilers in Houston, they invited the St. Aug band to come and play their halftime show. While we were there, Mr. Hampton arranged for us to attend a TSU game. That was the first time I saw “The Ocean of Soul,” and I was blown away. They had, like, 300 band members, and a division of majorettes the called “The Motion of the Ocean,” and these really funky arrangements that relied on the heavy beats coming from their drumline, known as The Funk Train.
I guess Mr. Hampton talked to TSU’s band director, Mr. Benjamin Butler, who wanted to recruit some of us. When it came time to take our SATs, Mr. Hampton told us to make sure we had our scores sent to TSU. I was planning to attend LSU and study to be an accountant at the time, but TSU offered me a music scholarship, and after being so impressed by the “The Ocean of Soul,” I changed my mind. A lot of us did. That year, about 20 band members from St. Aug wound up going to TSU, their biggest recruiting group from New Orleans up to that time. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of graduates from the “Marching 100” going on to TSU.
Moss: That year, a lot of cats from St. Aug and from John McDonogh 35 got recruited by TSU with scholarships and all that stuff. The year before, when a lot of us from New Orleans went to Southern, we had to try out for the band just like everybody else. I went up there with my tenor drum, and I had to compete with 10 other guys for the one remaining drum spot. By the end of the year, due to the drum major leaving to join the Marines because he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant, the band captain asked me to try out. I really didn’t want to do it. He made me practice all the moves and the gymnastic routines you have to do as drum major. When it came time to try out, Dr. Greggs picked me out of maybe 20 other guys. I guess Dr. Greggs and the drum captain saw a leadership quality in me that I wasn’t really aware of at that point in my life.
I was a drum major at Southern while I was still technically a freshman. Off the field, the band director, the assistant director, and the band captain are in charge of the band, but on the field, the drum major’s the one who’s in charge. He’s the one who stops and starts the show. He sets the tempos by blowing his whistle, and he’s the one who leads the entire band through all the formations, sets up the dance routines, and positions himself strategically on the field so when the formation shifts, or the dance routine is over, he’s standing in front of the band, ready to lead them into the next tune by giving them the tempo on his whistle. And he has to make sure the band doesn’t stay on the field too long because you have a ten-minute time limit, and if the band is on the field longer than their time limit, the football team gets penalized.
What kind of music were you playing in the marching bands back then?
Moss: Even back in high school, the bands were playing pretty much whatever people wanted to hear, anything that had soul and feeling. We were all about music people were dancing to. We wanted to play everything they played on Soul Train.
LeBlanc: It all comes down to Earth, Wind & Fire. That was one of the first bands to be adapted for the marching bands, and that music really influenced us when we started the Soul Rebels. In the beginning, it was also anything coming out of the late ‘60s: James Brown, Motown, that kind of sound. Then the marching band music started incorporating mainstream pop music—Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, David Bowie, that kind of stuff.
What difference do you think the marching-band experience has made on your lives?
LeBlanc: Oh, man. My experience in the TSU band had such a profound influence on me that it’s continued to affect my adult life to this day. It was a tightly run and precisely focused organization. We were treated almost as if we were professional musicians, being coached on how to do media interviews and appearing in commercials. Anywhere we traveled, we always wore suits and ties.
The university had the resources that allowed us to realize our full potential personally and musically, so by the time we graduated from the high school and university bands, we could play everything from classical to John Philip Sousa, from jazz and R&B to Latin and reggae. But when you add the discipline that was demanded of you into that situation, you have an individual who’s not only musically accomplished, but one whose character has been strengthened, who’ll never be tempted by drugs or drinking or any other kind of self-destructive behavior.
Moss: After Southern, I was in the Air Force Reserve for six years, and the experience was not all that different from being in a university marching band. I keep telling the younger guys in the band, “Y’all don’t know the sacrifices Lumar and I have made to still be here.” If Lumar and I had given up, the Soul Rebels wouldn’t be here anymore. In the world of marching bands, you always work to be the best, but you also learn that if somebody gets the best of you, you have to just take that in stride, and go back and work a little harder to fix whatever your weaknesses are, so you come back stronger than you were the last time.