- Christophe Losberger
- Shardé Thomas (right) with the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band earlier this year at the Blues Rules festival in Crissier, Switzerland
Fife-and-drum music has a long history in African-American folk culture, though it's not as widely known as the blues and jazz traditions. Many accounts survive of black fife-and-drum units accompanying soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and during the Civil War such bands marched on both sides (though the Confederacy didn't allow black combat soldiers till very late in the fighting). Fife-and-drum bands became less common during Reconstruction, but in the relatively isolated hill country of northern Mississippi, they continued to play for civic events, picnics, and other public gatherings.
This tradition remained strong until at least the mid-20th century, and it has yet to entirely die out. Otha Turner, founder of the long-running Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, was born in rural Rankin County, Mississippi, around 1907, and began playing the fife as a boy. He also drummed in local bands, eventually including a well-known group led by Napolean Strickland. He led Rising Star until his death in 2003, at which point his granddaughter Shardé Thomas took it over.
Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band with Shardé Thomas
Sun 6/10, 11:15 AM, Mississippi Juke Joint
Thomas had picked up the fife before she turned five—Turner loved telling the story of how the little girl simply strode up to him one day, grabbed a cane, and began blowing into it. Within a few years, fortified by the pluck and self-confidence she's demonstrated ever since, Thomas was performing with Rising Star at picnics.
Now 28, Thomas still makes her fifes by hand out of cane, hollowing it out with a heated metal rod—just as Turner did. These days she usually calls the band "Rising Stars" because, she says, that's what they are. They play functions in and around her native Sardis, Mississippi—including the annual goat roast and music festival at Turner's old place in nearby Gravel Springs—as well as festivals and workshops all over the country.
Shardé Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band play after dark at the 2017 Otha Turner Picnic in Gravel Springs, Mississippi.
If the antiquity and near extinction of the fife-and-drum tradition has you expecting Shardé Thomas to deliver a musty exercise in "folkie" revivalism, though, you'd better think again. Her fife technique transcends the instrument's limitations—she slurs and bends notes, creating tonal and harmonic complexities that defy its seemingly constricted range. Her richly textured voice carries an irresistible buoyancy, which makes "Little Sally Walker" (an old children's ring-game song that she's been singing virtually all her life) a highlight of her shows. She's also developed into an impressive hand drummer—she plays galvanizing polyrhythms on traditional material as well as on rock 'n' roll numbers such as "Bo Diddley" (a favorite when she sits in with the North Mississippi Allstars).
Thomas plays hand drum at the 2017 R.L. Boyce Picnic in Como, Mississippi.
Thomas now divides her time between touring and teaching with Head Start, but she remains dedicated to keeping her grandfather's name and legacy alive: as she sings on "Granny," from her self-released 2015 album Shawty Blues, "O-O-Otha dead and gone / And he left me here to lead them on." She's convinced that her music, if presented in the right context with the right adaptations, can still speak to younger listeners.
"They're very interested," she says. "It's kind of fun to see their expressions—it's like, 'Oh! OK!' That's why we try to connect today's music and today's traditions in with our songs. We try to keep up to date with what they're listening to, and just add it to the style of music that we do. It's kind of hard, but we just research the [contemporary] songs and just kind of put our own feel to it, in the way we do it onstage. We keep the young crowd, but we keep the tradition along with it."
In that spirit, Thomas spices her vocals with cadences borrowed from hip-hop and melismas lifted from contemporary R&B—the blend is especially clear on solo songs such as "We Made It," from her self-released 2010 CD, What Do I Do? During shows she'll thrust her fife at the crowd, challenging them to jump up and respond. "C'mon! Make some noise for Otha Turner, y'all!" she'll demand. "Now make some noise for Shardé!" Even when she and the Rising Stars faithfully follow fife-and-drum tradition, in their hands it lives and breathes—which means it can still evolve. v