Marching Band

Photos by Emily Slack
Photos by Emily Slack

By Jake Clapp | LSU Student

In a commanding boom, Tairone Joseph orders a simple instruction to his 12-year-old son Taireon, whom he calls "Scooter."

"'Scooter,'" Joseph calls in the sharp, direct tone of a drill sergeant. "Groove Thing." Immediately, "Scooter" blows a loud blast on a whistle.

Before the shrill note has a chance to fade, the group of eight boys circling "Scooter" shout "Groove Thing," and the thwack of snare drums, low rumbles of bass drums and clang of cymbals from the Greater Baton Rouge Drum Corp begin demanding a new cadence. A group of 10 girls, the Starette Dancers, follow Joseph's daughter Taikeria, 14, as they try to nail down a new set of marching band style dance moves.

Cars coasting down Government Street honk at the familiar sight of the group holding its weekly Sunday afternoon practice in an empty lot on the corner of Iberville Street.

In just under a year, the Drum Corp – Starette Dancers has grown from a struggling, low-income community program — unable to travel or to properly outfit the influx of kids seeking to join the Mid-City program — to a flourishing after-school activity that has become a magnet for community support.

"Most of these kids come from bad neighborhoods," Joseph said as he surveys the 16 kids that have made it to practice this particular Sunday. "If we weren't doing this, they have bad crowds right next door. (The Drum Crop) is helping them do something else."

Joseph, 36, said the Drum Corp got it start in 1988 when he and his brothers would entertain themselves by playing drums through the same Mid-City neighborhoods he now drives a school bus route.

As the years passed, Joseph noticed how the loud noises caught the attention of other kids and decided to use the noise to bring together kids in his community for an after-school activity that, he hoped, would teach kids discipline and keep them out of trouble.

By February 2011, the Drum Corp and Starette Dancers had grown to about 25 boys and close to 15 girls. While the group occasionally performed in area parades, the condition of the drums didn't match the enthusiasm of kids wanting to beat a drum.

Only seven drums were available to share among the growing number of drummers. When a drum wasn't available, a bucket, the ground, even the air was a substitute during practice. When a drum harness broke, the band continued to march forward, the drummer would stop and put the drum on the ground to play.

Joseph said he knew the group wouldn't last in this condition and with the help of photographer Brian Baiamonte and a group of friends in the film industry, a short documentary and call for help was posted on the, a project fundraising website.

Within a week, the fundraiser had raised its goal of $5,000. By the end of its 30-day time limit, the fundraiser raised $9,677 with some donations coming as far as New York.

Joseph said more donations came from outside of the fundraiser in the form of new drums and cymbals and donated uniforms.

"We bought one set of uniforms, and the next thing I know, we have three more sets from people who just heard about us," Joseph said. "There was a lot of support from inside the community, but I would say even more from outside of Baton Rouge."

Joseph said the group used most of its funds to travel to Shreveport where they placed first in the Mardi Gras parade. For some of the band members, this was their first time out of Baton Rouge.

As drums pound out "Groove Thing," the cymbal player, a newcomer to the group, misses a beat. "Scooter" blows a whistle, the Corp stops and the 9-year-old puts down the cymbals and starts doing 10 pushups.

Joseph said he tries to incorporate discipline into his practices. If you miss a beat, 10 pushups; if you're late for practice, its laps around the lot; if you miss practice and don't have a good reason, Joseph will call to find out why.

The group has continued to grow to close to 60 students who now regularly perform in local parades and try to travel outside the city for performances as often as possible, Joseph said. The only major concern now: the need for a bus to help with transportation.

Parents have started to get involved with the Drum Corp and Starette Dancers as well, by transporting kids and helping when the group travels out of town.

"This is doing a good job keeping these kids busy," said Renee Bellard, the mother of 13-year-old Ja'cosie, one of the Starette Dancers. "Tairone is showing these kids that a stranger can come in and do good things in their community."