Afrossippi: Fife and Drum


from and

Othar Turner & the Afrossippi Allstars and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band:  “From Senegal to Senatobia”

Fife and drum bands have their roots firmly planted in African music. Long traditions carried over by captured slaves, brought to American soil where their new owners attempted to quell the sound, especially in the South. They kept the music alive in their memories and passed them down through the generations. Various stringed and wind instruments can have their origins traced directly back to Africa. Drums in particular played a heavy part in tribal gatherings as people would use their polyrhythmic beats to communicate as well as to sing and dance along in a communal spirit.

The use of fifes and drums also have military backgrounds in the United States. They were used by both American and British forces during the Revolutionary War to announce cadence and marching techniques. During this time in American history, most African-Americans were denied the right to serve in conflict carrying arms. But many were permitted to participate in these musical outfits. In fact, even Thomas Jefferson had put together a fife and drum band from his own slave holdings. In other parts of the country, full brass bands were developed as the nation grew older.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, former slaves continued to perform these brands of music for a period, though the fife and drum styles began to dwindle. By the turn of the 20th century, the number of performers had decreased to the point where only a handful remained, working in limited regions of the country. You may be able to travel to Colonial Williamsburg to hear fife and drum music, but this in truth is mostly reenactments of how the music was played in the 18th century. For original, authentic fife and drum sounds, you must head to remote areas of Northern Mississippi, where the tradition has survived even to this day, creating a partial base for the development of the music now known as the Blues.

Just how long that tradition will survive is in question, though. Many of the modern day performers have recently departed this world for the hereafter and younger players are in short supply. Memories of Sid Hemphill and Napolian Strickland are starting to fade. Jessie Mae Hemphill, who carried on her grandfather’s style, has been left incapacitated by a stroke and can no longer perform. And, most recently, African-rooted fife and drum music in America has taken its hardest blow, with the February 27th, 2003  passing of Othar Turner

Mississippi fife legend Turner was joined on this outing by a loose union of players billed as the Afrosippi All Stars. This makeshift band is comprised of members of Turner’s family, visiting Senegalese musicians, a university percussion student/organizer, and slide guitarist/producer/North Mississippi All Star Luther Dickinson. Their sympathetic accompaniment on African percussion, kora, and bottleneck guitar give “Shimmy She Wobble,” “Station Blues,” and Bounce Ball — reprised from his recording debut, Everybody Hollerin’ Goat — a depth lacking on his earlier versions.

Traditional African drums exchange rhythms with marching-band snares and bass drums. Staccato kora melodies complement whining slide guitar riffs. And Turner’s shrill, archaic fife floats freely over it all. The title track is the album’s most distinctly African number, and probably the only track here easy on the listener’s ears. The closing “Sunu” is five minutes of nothing but drums. This is hardly good-time music for casual blues listeners or weekend world music fans, but it’s important music all the same, bridging, as it does, great distances between continents and traditions.


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