HBCU-esday: Bands

When talking about HBCUs one thing that can not be ignored is the bands! As popularized by the movie Drumline, in most cases at HBCUs, the bands are just as and even more of an attraction that the actual games themselves.  HBCU bands have always played a major role in fostering school pride. Every HBCU marching band has a very personal and distinct identity to their style and today I would like to break down a few of those unique traits so that these various distinctions can be identified in either a few YouTube clips or during the next opportunity should you get the pleasure of experiencing an HBCU band live in person.   Power, passion and precision are the most common traits to every HBCU marching band with Tuskegee University credited with having the first band at an HBCU dating as far back as 1890.  A distinctive “HBCU-style” of marching band originated in the American South in the 1940s through the blending of earlier traditions of military music and minstrel shows with a performance repertoire based on popular song.


Early American military music recruited large numbers of black musicians. A 1738 statute enacted by the Virginia House of Burgesses required military service for “free mulattos, blacks, and Native Americans”. Due to government concerns of a domestic rebellion, they were prohibited from carrying arms and were, therefore, exclusively used as “drummers, fifers, trumpeters, or pioneers.” As many as 5,000 African-Americans provided military service during the American War of Independence, including notable musicians such as Barzillai Lew. The tendency to recruit African-Americans into military bands continued after independence; following the War of 1812, a large number of civilian, all-black brass bands formed among veteran military musicians across the United States, but particularly in New Orleans where they often adopted the theatrical styles of minstrel shows.  HBCU bands were spawned from black military bands post war. As they developed they turned into an entertainment unit focused on high energy performances inspired by African American popular music. Generally stricter and more militaristic than PWI bands.

HBCU band culture is unique. The bands not only serve to entertain the crowd and do field shows and competitions, but it is also common for bands battle other bands, every band. It’s a very aggressive culture about being the best and outplaying the band across from you. HBCUs really stress their book. How big it is and how much better it is than another bands. Due to less regulation (although this is steadily changing) HBCU bands play ALOT more during games. Every time out, during ball movement, over announcements. The crowd absolutely loves it and it’s a running idea that people come to games only for the band. We also have zero and fifth quarters with the other bands. Band rivalries are intense. Most HBCUs and show style bands have in house arrangers and take pride in arranging styles. On YouTube there are a lot of comparison videos for example a “neck” comparison and each school plays the song but with different harmonic and structural interpretations. Since a lot of rap music is played, artistry is present through changing the music and adding personalized flair rather than playing the song exactly how it is on the radio. Every song that every HBCU plays is ALWAYS memorized. Stand songs, field show, all of it.

HBCU Terms

  • HBCU– Historically black college or university.
  • Band battle – playing songs back and forth in a “rap battle-esque” style to “beat “ another band.
  • Zero Quarter – Band battle before the game. 
  • Fifth Quarter – Band battle after the game.
  • Cranking – A style of playing that is going for volume, aggression and intimidation.
  • Book – Collection of memorized songs for that season. Generally a mix of current radio hits, African American classics, and school signature songs. Books can easily be 40 songs long.
  • Drum major entrance – tradition where the drum major starts the show with a choreographed routine involving dancing, mace tricks, and school specific signature moves.
  • Fanfare/Punches– instrumental sections will learn (on their own time) short songs for just them. They play it as a call out to another schools section of the same instruments.
  • Tunnel– a tunnel is where the drum line forms a physical tunnel and the band marches through. Usually there are traditional movements and rituals that go on in the tunnel as well as a tunnel cadence. See NCAT’s Pfunk or NSU’s tunnel.
  • March in routine– each school calls it something different but most schools have a routine when it comes to marching in their stadium and taking their seats in the stand. NEVER we will walk into the stadium and just sit down. We generally have specific van fences and movement for this.
  • Section names– sections are typically named and have history, colors, hand signs and things to go a lot with it. For example drum majors for NCAT are Smooth ignition, piccolos are Essence of Silver.
  • Opener– Big sound wall, shock and awe and sometimes a DM entrance.
  • Drill-Feel good marching tempo (bpm120) song. Funk and RnB classics. The famous example being Earth Wind and Fire. This is where the band makes 8 to 5 formations. You don’t see HBCU bands do curves or non-grid based movement a lot of the time. We generally stay in 4 man squads and stick to military drilling.
  • Features– There are lots of different kinds of features, but in general a feature is a moment in the show used to highlight a Specific section of the band. Dance features are high energy songs that form a staging for the dance squad to do a routine to. Drum features are high energy drum line routines to highlight technical skill as well as tricks and stunts. Flag features are slow emotional pieces to flex flag technique. Some shows have all three some shows only one it just depends.
  • Breakdown– Near the end of the show the band plays small segments of popular or old school dance songs and the band dances. Super high energy, often informed by newest dance trends (Kiki challenge, Nae Nae, you get the idea).
    Closer/Sidelineblowdown– The band comes up to the sideline and cranks out powerful tune to cap the show off.
  • Drum majors– Drum majors served all the normal drum majory roles in addition to having routines. I hesitate to call it dancing but it boils down to a book of memorized routines involving mace tricks and coordinated movement. We do these during drill and parades.

Band Videos

NCAT & UNC: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mjStvU3cVOk

Cranking/SU: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=STUZST3Ofps

Fanfare/Benedict: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=baVwP7Vx394

Drum Major Entrance/NCAT: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=vYvC70n6dhM

Tunnel/NSU: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=K3nhu81b3rE

Here at Victra, our People of Color United [POCU] ERG is celebrating Black History Month all month long and invite you to join us!

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