East-side marching unit wins honors with a blend of heart and discipline

Moving to their own beat

Maryland Journal

December 04, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

It's a few days after the Baltimore All-Stars Marching Unit bested a handful of local rivals at an annual battle-of-the-bands competition, and the zealous bunch is now having to face a champion's burden. Everybody, as the band's leaders are finding out, wants to be part of a winner.

The group's weekly Tuesday practice at a recreation center on Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore is overcrowded, filled wall-to-wall with faces who want in.

Walik Hernandez, one of the band's 12 founders and a drum major, says the last performance, where the dancers dressed in black cat suits in keeping with a Halloween theme, was a production that sent the band's Q rating into the stratosphere.

Blowing a whistle nonstop through the two-hour practice, Hernandez helps choreograph the dance moves for upward of 150 members. "Right now, I can truly say that we're the hottest band out there," Hernandez said.

Baltimore features anywhere from 10 to 15 of these percussion-dominated marching bands. They perform throughout the year at holiday parades, neighborhood block parties, school functions and everything in between.

The BASMU is one of the newest, a spinoff from another band, New Edition, four years ago. Tanika Ludd, assistant director of the Baltimore Westsiders, credits the BASMU's rising popularity to its imaginative dance moves. The Westsiders, founded in 1964, is the oldest known black community band.

"They're definitely creative," said Ludd of the BASMU. "Their performances are like, `Wow.'"

As tends to be the case with community bands, the BASMU raises its own funds to buy instruments and pay for travel. The woodwind and brass sections typical of most high school and college marching bands give way to dozens of hip-swaying dancers.

A trip to Atlanta is fast-approaching for the group, made up of about 70 percent kids and 30 percent young adults. In times like these, with a major performance on the horizon and so many new members to teach, Hernandez and the three other drum majors have to play parents as well as drill sergeants.

Rules are strictly enforced. No talking during practice. No cursing - ever. And if athletic attire is not worn, expect to be sent home.

"It's teaching kids no matter how old, how big, how small, you have to answer to someone," said Juanita Thomas, another founder and the sergeant-at-arms. "A lot of times kids feel like they don't have to answer to no one. That's why they go astray."

There is little chance for foolishness during practices. Drum cadences reverberate off the walls from start to finish, and the dancers shake their hips, march and wave their hands.

When the practice ends, Hernandez demands silence. He informs everyone of an end-of-the week fundraiser and asks for a $60 deposit by the next practice.

A teenage girl alternates between talking and laughing. Hernandez threatens to throw her out of the practice.

"That's why you don't know nothing," Hernandez yelled.

"It's discipline," Hernandez would later say. "Sometimes they don't get it at home."

If the squad has a mother, it's Johnnie M. Alston, whose familiarity with black community bands goes back decades. Alston, 61, the squad's co-director, says she has seen bands come and go, and she is determined to make this one become the east-side version of the Westsiders.

The Westsiders, with its 200 members, is one of the city's largest, best-known and most flamboyant groups, a virtual institution at holiday parades for decades.

Ludd, the assistant director, said the Westsiders have lost a few members over the years to the BASMU, but they tend to leave in good grace. "We don't try to hold anybody back," she said. "They might find something we didn't offer you here. We definitely don't carry any animosity."

Nijee Sounders, 18, came over from the Westsiders two years ago. He runs the BASMU's percussion section, where he says he plays "whatever needs to be played."

Sounders said the band has close to 70 overall cadences, about 30 of which they use regularly. He, like most of the members, lives in East Baltimore.

"I've been playing drums ever since I was born," Sounders said.

Sounders, Mikael Frisby, Troy Fenwick and Tyriek Howard, all percussionists, remove the weighty instruments from their shoulders after practice. Those drums, says Frisby, become substantially lighter during performances, when adrenaline kicks in.

The drum line is the backbone of the band, and these four friends make up its core. All are between 17 and 20, and none minds having to devote two to three nights a week to practicing.

"It keeps me out of trouble, keeps me out of the streets," Frisby said. "I like music, playing the drums. Most people, if it's something they like, they're going to keep going back to it. That's what keeps me coming back."

Shenita Cherry brought her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece to join the band. Cherry had seen the BASMU perform in New York City and, more recently, at a local parade.

At the end of the practice, the niece comes over to Cherry, exhausted but smiling ear to ear. Cherry, sitting in a corner of the recreation center, rattles off the benefits of her relatives joining this particular band.

"I know where they are. I know they're not on the streets," Cherry says. "My daughter is at a very influential age, so it was important for me to give her something that I would be able to be part of myself.

"And I just like this band. They're really together."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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