When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

African-American drum and bugle corps: then and now by Harold Craig Barber

For decades before the rise of the great Brooklyn steel orchestras, outstanding large drum and bugle corps were an integral part of all black neighborhoods and the black musical experience, particularly in Brooklyn. The late Max Roach (Brooklyn), and Maurice White [Earth, Wind & Fire] (Memphis) - Billy Cobham [Mahavishnu] (Brooklyn), Omar Hakim [Weather Report] (Bronx), and James ‘Diamond’ Williams [Ohio Players] - are among the many, many music icons who got their musical and percussion grounding in these music organizations. Indeed, the similarities and sense of purpose between the urban steel orchestras, and drum and bugle corps, are uncanny.  --- When Steel Talks

Harold Craig Barber

Black History Month represents a unique perspective to celebrate—as well as educate—others on the contributions to our country of African-Americans. I can only image what it must to have been like for African-American drum corps to venture and compete in areas where they likely weren't even welcomed before and during our country's Civil Rights movement—not to mention those individuals who tried to integrate drum corps when there was no welcome mat out for African-American kids.


Despite those odds, black communities produced a lot of excellent and proficient drum and bugle corps. As I scan some of the faces of African-American young people participating in drum corps today, I'm quite sure they have no knowledge of the once vibrant drum and bugle corps activity that flourished in black communities across the country.


No history or heritage has been passed down to this generation of marchers. I think about the African-American drum corps icons of my era; Eugene Bennet, Billy Cobham, Bill Hightower, Sol Anthony and Bobby Winslow, just to name a few. I think about my young instructors from Carter Cadets who taught me the proper way to play snare drum. I'm a New York City public schoolteacher. I reminisce about my junior high teacher Mr. Johnson. He started a drum and bugle corps in our school called the Decatur Cadets. He saw the importance of getting kids involved in this activity. I wish I could thank him for his commitment to kids. The activity did a lot of shaping us into fine adults. A few years back, I had a conversation with my lifelong friend Herschel Vaughn about the decline in numbers of the once-plentiful community based African-American drum corps. We concluded that the drum and bugle corps experience had bypassed a lot of African-American children and its once great notoriety in our community had died out.

The Washington VIPs in their exit at the Carter Cadets show in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1969.

When I think about how African-American drum and bugle corps once permeated the inner city landscape, I ponder how a much loved activity in my community dried up over the years. As I look at young people in my community, I reminisce about the Carter Cadets, Warriors, Wynn Center Toppers, Riversiders, Page Park Cadets and the Washington VIPs. I wished these young people had the same opportunities to experience the drum and bugle corps activity as I did. I live by the once-occupied old Carter Cadets building located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and pass it frequently. I can almost see members milling around outside. I look at the top floor where the drum line once rehearsed.

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