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HBCU Bands

For the Southern and Grambling bands, it was an epic Bayou Classic weekend

It was all precision, exhilaration and adrenaline at Thursday’s Saints game, Friday’s battle and halftime Saturday

Who won the battle?

If unfamiliar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), one might be confused by this one simple yet important question that often receives the most biased answers.

This year was no different.

By halftime of the 45th annual Bayou Classic in New Orleans, more than 67,000 seats were filled in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Current students, fans, alumni and supporters of the Grambling State Tigers and the Southern University Jaguars traveled from far and wide to watch who would win the battle for Louisiana in one of the state’s largest rivalry games.

Met with roaring cheers from the very live crowd, Grambling’s World Famed Tiger Marching Band was the first to take the field. The band’s four first-year drum majors took the field in preparation for one of the most important performances of the weekend. After entertaining the crowd with a memorable performance filled with both old-school and new arrangements, complex formations and an amusing dance break, the band exited and made way for The Human Jukebox. Also met by a rousing ovation from the stands, Southern University’s band showed special attention to the local crowd with arrangements that incorporated sounds from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and hits from New Orleans brass bands.

Southern University drum major Tre’Von Ceasar had to lead The Human Jukebox through three performances in New Orleans over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend.

Photo by John X.Miller

The halftime showdown concluded the last major performance of three chaotic yet fun-filled days for both bands.

“You know that sigh people do after they’ve worked really hard and they’re finally done? That’s how it feels,” said Southern drum major Tre’Von Ceasar. “I’m going to sleep all day Sunday.”

The Bayou Classic is one of the largest HBCU football games. The rivalry dates to 1932, but the official establishment of the Classic came in 1974 during its debut at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.

And with most HBCU games, the battle of the iconic bands is as much of a quintessential part of the rivalry as the football game itself. So it’s no surprise that the bands came prepared in their quest to be the best in Louisiana.

“When we come to Bayou Classic, it’s a competition,” said Edwin Thomas, Grambling State’s interim band director. “Both bands are coming at each other with the best they have. It’s just a matter of who does the best. I’m immune to my emotions, but I know for the students, I watch them come through here a lot and this is just a different adrenaline for them to perform against this particular opponent. Right now, they’re calm. But before the Bayou Classic, the excitement is 10 times over what we get from the students when we play other teams.”

Besides the Battle of the Bands, which always takes place the day before the game, the bands gave a bonus performance on Thanksgiving. Both bands performed during halftime of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons game, which remains one of the most anticipated NFC South matchups and, without a doubt, the most important rivalry game for New Orleanians.

The opportunity was thrilling, but it also challenged the bands to create different shows for each audience.

“I wanted to make sure we take each day at a time,” said Kedric Taylor, Southern’s interim band director. “We had to prepare for each day, so there was a lot of preparation going on. The fans are looking for a show each day, so we had to prepare for something each day. Having to go through all of it, it takes a lot. It’s very exciting to have everybody just waiting to see what we’re going to do.”

While describing the effort put into these three consecutive performances, there’s one word that constantly flowed throughout each conversation: preparation.

The World Famed Tiger Marching Band and The Human Jukebox began preparing for all three performances weeks in advance, with nonstop practices until the routines were perfected.

Grambling State’s Orchesis Dance Company members perform during halftime of the 2018 Bayou Classic in New Orleans on Saturday.

Photo by John X. Miller

“The preparation is probably the hardest part,” Taylor said. “You have to make sure you keep [the performance] in a certain time. You have to think about putting everybody where they need to go, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, what’s going to be the most effective and what’s not effective. What you need and what you don’t need — that’s the hardest part. But just giving the circumstances for each performance is a little different. Each crowd is different, so you have to prepare differently. We always prepare for ourselves. We never prepare for someone else. We always prepare to be better than we were our last performance. It’s fun but also a little nerve-wracking because at some point you’re nervous and anxious, wondering how it’s going to go.”

For Grambling State drum major Marcus Wagner, who’s in his first year in the new position, kicking off the weekend with an NFL game was one of the best ways to get the party started.

“This performance for the NFL is a lot different,” Wagner said. “It’s more cameras, it’s all over TV. That’s a big difference right there. With a regular game, you got the local fans. This game, you got a bigger crowd with Saints fans, Atlanta Falcons fans. It’s a way bigger crowd to look forward to. … As drum major, it’s a lot of pressure. There’s four of us this year, and it’s all our first year, all of us. It’s a lot of pressure, but this game will break the ice.”

On Thanksgiving Day, as the Saints cleared the field after a dominating first half against the Falcons, the World Famed Tiger Marching Band members lined up along the sidelines, ready to take the field. They opened with Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” while forming the well-known Saints fleur-de-lis logo that welcomed locals and visitors to the Superdome. A smooth transition allowed the band to show more of its personality as band members danced and entertained the crowd while playing Lil Boosie’s “Do the Ratchet.” Working on limited time, the World Famed Tiger Marching Band exited the field as the crowd welcomed The Human Jukebox.

Fans cheered, danced and sang along as the band launched into the Saints’ unofficial theme song, “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk!)” by the Ying Yang Twins, while simultaneously spelling out the name of the late team owner Tom Benson, who died in March. The band was met with an even larger roar from the crowd as it followed up by spelling Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ name on the field. Much like the Bayou Classic halftime show, the band catered to the local audience and ended with one of New Orleans’ most popular second-line songs, “Do Whatcha Wanna” by Rebirth Brass Band.

Less than 24 hours later, the bands were back in the dome for the long-awaited battle. The white field lines had been repainted. The end zones where Brees threw four touchdown passes the night before now read “Southern” on one side and “Grambling” on the other. It was their turn now.

For more than an hour, the bands went back and forth with an arsenal of old and new songs, playing a little bit of something for everyone in the mixed crowd. Although band members may have been tired from the week’s festivities, the amount of energy displayed during the battle was the necessary adrenaline rush to get the bands and crowds pumped up.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Grambling State student director Raven Catholic. “It’s a great feeling. It’s a totally different feeling once you actually get out there and you’re actually performing and then you hear them cheering for you. It’s the buildup: the nerves first, and then once you get out there and you’re performing, it’s like, ‘Aw, this is fun!’ This is what you live for.

“You know that sigh people do after they’ve worked really hard and they’re finally done? That’s how it feels,” said Southern drum major Tre’Von Ceasar. “I’m going to sleep all day Sunday.”

“We want to put on a good show, and a lot of people have family and friends here, so it’s a combination of everything. There are a lot of households divided. There are a lot of kids whose families went to the Southern but they chose Grambling. Bragging rights is what we’re fighting for.”

With two of three performances out of the way, both bands felt confident going into the final performance to close the weekend out. And at the end of the day, answers to one of the most important questions still remained divided.

So, “who won the battle?” It’s all about whom you ask. And when you do, take note of the colors they’re wearing.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.