To a stadium full of fans, the Honda Battle of the Bands is much more than just another marching band competition. It’s a reunion.
Hello, my name is Christy, and I am a female bandhead.
If you are reading this magazine, you have probably been exposed to band culture in some sort of way, by being a participant, knowing a participant or just by being a fan. Some nicknames given to those who eat, sleep and breathe marching band have a negative connotation. However to us, the community of approximately 50 Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) that have marching bands, the die-hards are known as bandheads—or in my case, female bandheads—and the term is considered anything but negative.
If you do a Google search on the Honda Battle of the Bands, you will be able to pull up a number of articles that have been written about the event in its six-year history. The articles talk about how the showcase has been an annual event in Atlanta since 2003. Writers depict how 70,000-plus spectators fill the Georgia Dome to see 10 powerhouse HBCU bands perform drills to R&B and hip-hop tunes. They also may mention the guest artists that perform with the bands and the recruitment fair held for the high school students.
Those articles do accurately describe the event; however, I would like to talk about a different side of the battle. I would like to talk about some of the things they won’t mention in those articles, such as the camaraderie, the parties, the get-togethers and the sense of community it brings to all of us that are HBCU band fans.
A Family Affair
For the past nine years, I have been the webmaster of an online community called The 5th Quarter (http://www.the5thquarter.com/), dedicated to showcasing the skills and pageantry of HBCU marching bands. Our readers have established a sense of community on the site, and I have seen just about everything happen in the lives of the readers, including graduations, first jobs, births, deaths and marriages.
Even in hard times, the HBCU band community maintains a sense of family through it all. During this one weekend, alumni, members of musical fraternities and sororities, and everyone else come together for a family reunion of sorts.
Since 2003, the Honda Battle of the Bands has occurred on the last Saturday in January; however, for most of the HBCU band community, the celebration tends to start on the Friday before the battle as we all converge to Atlanta from our various regions of the country.
As for me, I live in North Carolina; my weekend roommate lives in Miami; and we hung out with people from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis and Houston.
This year, The 5th Quarter hosted a meet-and-greet in the CNN Center. In past years, we have held band tape parties (where people gather to watch the tapes and DVDs of band programs) and gathered for a meal in various restaurants around Atlanta.
More than 40 people came to our meet-and-greet this year. Many of us marched in bands such as Prairie View A&M’s Marching Storm, Alabama State University’s Mighty Marching Hornets and Kentucky State University’s Marching Thorobred, to name a few. Band directors from college, high school and middle school programs also stopped by to say hello. All ages were represented, from those fresh out of college to more seasoned alumni.
Although I was busy being the hostess for this event, I did get a chance to listen to some groups as we socialized. One group of people—including a recent graduate—discussed what it felt like to come back and watch their band after graduating. The new graduate told me later that evening that he got a lot out of the conversation.
Dialogues like those are exactly why I think the Honda Battle of the Bands is such a special event. No matter how passionate we are about our bands, and despite how intensely we may debate the excellence of our programs, we all can put our differences aside for the sake of having fun over the weekend. And some of us may actually learn something in the end.
The Greek Thing and Recruitment Fair
Many musical organizations in the area also host parties. The four main groups are Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Sorority, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity and Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity for Women.
A few of us joke about how the Honda Battle of the Bands is a “mini- Greek convention” because so many members of the four organizations come to the area for the weekend. However, the parties are not just limited to members of the musical organizations. Students and alumni show up in droves to mingle and dance into the late hours of night.
On Saturday morning, Honda hosts a recruitment fair where more than 20 HBCUs showcase their bands and schools to middle and high school students. Literally thousands of secondary school students—not only in the metro Atlanta area but also from around the country— pour into the Georgia World Congress Center to learn more about various HBCUs. The recruitment fair had representatives from Winston-Salem State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Central State University, Alabama A&M University, Howard University and Lincoln University, just to name a few. The recruitment fair is an important component in sparking a student’s interest in HBCUs, and it was good to see that it was well attended.
The Main Event
After the recruitment fair, I took a short walk to the Georgia Dome for the actual Battle of the Bands. For the past few years, The 5th Quarter has hosted a skybox on or near the 50-yard line of the Georgia Dome. I, along with 19 others, gathered in the skybox for a prime seat for the event. We had plenty of food, drinks and, of course, copies of Halftime Magazine.
One of my favorite things about sitting in The 5th Quarter skybox is hearing critiques from some of the more serious HBCU bandheads. We usually have staff members and directors from HBCU and high school band programs, so it is interesting to hear their perspectives. For example, Al Davis, director of bands at Hampton University, stopped by and chatted with us. Overall, the skybox was a big success, and we had a lot of fun.
The Honda Battle of the Bands always starts off with a mass band performance where a singer and a choir lead all 10 bands in the national anthem. Then the bands perform in order of member size, from smallest to largest. The bands performed in the following order:
1. Winston-Salem State University’s Red Sea of Sound
2. Shaw University’s Platinum Sound Marching Band
3. Tuskegee University’s Marching Crimson Pipers
4. Virginia State University’s Marching Trojan Explosion
5. Albany State University’s Marching Ram Show Band
6. North Carolina Central University’s Sound Machine
7. Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul
8. Norfolk State University’s Spartan Legion
9. University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South
10. Bethune-Cookman University’s Marching Wildcats
Texas Southern was undeniably THE band of the event, with the Ocean of Soul receiving thunderous applause from the crowd for its sound and introduction onto the field. Texas Southern’s dance line, “The Motion of the Ocean,” also received praise from the crowd with their routine to Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine.” They ended with an energetic dance routine to a medley of current hip-hop and R&B songs. By the reaction of the crowd, one could tell the Ocean of Soul would not be forgotten.
North Carolina Central did a corps-inspired show that went outside of the box from what a traditional show band would perform at halftime. Winston-Salem State, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Shaw University, which all made their first-time appearance at the battle, performed well and were well-received by the crowd.
One would think that watching 10 bands perform back-to-back would get a bit tiring; however, no one seemed too restless because the event was run like a well-oiled machine. In between the bands, a DJ played hip-hop and R&B music to keep the crowd dancing.
In addition, each year, a band director who has made a significant contribution to HBCU bands is honored by conducting the mass band at the final performance of the day. This year, the honoree was Dr. Isaac Greggs, former band director at Southern University. Greggs retired in 2006 after leading the Southern University Marching Band (better known as “The Human Jukebox”) for nearly 40 years. During his tenure at Southern, the band performed in numerous Super Bowl halftime shows, Rose Bowl parades, Macy’s Thanksgiving parades and presidential inaugurations. Greggs had also been named an ambassador of goodwill for the state of Louisiana.
In the end, the battle was exciting, the Georgia Dome had a packed house, and everyone seemed to have a good time.
What does one do after the main event? Well, there are a lot of after-hour activities in Atlanta for just about any generation and interest. My crew decided to go to a local billiards/lounge area. While there, we met with people who attended various HBCUs and lived in different areas around the country. All of us went to the battle earlier and had a lot to say about the bands that performed. Also, on Saturday night there were more parties held by the musical organizations where students and recent grads danced the night away.
On Sunday, after a busy weekend of socializing, most of us went back to our respective homes. Some folks stayed around and enjoyed the sights of Atlanta for the day, but I had a podcast to do! Approximately twice a month, I host a podcast discussing the topics pertinent to HBCU bands. Since the Honda Battle of the Bands is such a large and important event, I did a two-part podcast. The first part compiled information from the weekend as I traveled to the various events, such as the ones listed in this article. The second part consisted of a panel of current and former band members in an in-depth discussion and critique of the bands.
Even now on The 5th Quarter, we are still talking about who we met in person at the event. We are even discussing which bands we think will be selected next year. I guess we will have to wait until November 2008 when the bands are announced for the 2009 battle! The Honda Battle of the Bands is definitely what I would call a homecoming. It is a time for all HBCU bandheads to get together, have fun and talk about what we love best—black college marching bands. We come from many different schools and backgrounds and have many differing opinions, but we all have the common bond of HBCU bands to tie us together.
Photo by Victor R. Gaines. All rights reserved.