Airdate: Sep 03, 2001
Scientist: Scott McGraw
Blowin' the Cane: Othar Turner's Fife and Drum Music
A unique synergy of marching music and rhythms of West African origin is kept alive by Othar Turner, a pioneer of Afro-American fife and drum music.
ambience: Fife & Drum Music, "Glory, Glory"
Every Labor Day Weekend they hold a very special picnic down in Gravel Springs, Mississippi. The music played here is performed on drums and a fife made of cane. It's marching music laced with African rhythms, and the celebration honors one of the great performer of this tradition - fife player Othar Turner. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont. Othar talks about the man who gave him his first cane fife when he was a little boy.
"He was an old man, they called Ardee Williams. And I'd walk around and look at 'em, I's ask 'Mister Ardee what's that you blowin?' Ah, son that's a fife. I's say, I sure like that, would you make me one? He says, sons you bein' small, it doesn't listen at your mother, he say, I make you one.' And he did make me one. So when he made the cane, he gave it to me. I say, 'I appreciate it, what do I owe you? He say, you don't owe me nothin. I want you to learn how to blow the cane. While if you believe it, you can do it. I say, I'm gonna do it.' And so I learned how to blow the cane."
When regimental marching music was learned by slaves, they blended it with the rhythms of West Africa. Like jazz and blues, it was transformed into something new. At one time there were a number of Afro-American fife and drum groups in Mississippi. Othar Turner is one of the last musicians to carry on this tradition.
"But when I'm gone the music's gone... Can't nobody teach you how to blow no cane. You got to get you some your own. Get out there on that cane and learn, and try until you get that tune yourself. . . just like playing a piano."
Fife player Othar Turner is in his nineties. His music is being passed on to his children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends. Our thanks to Nick Spitzer for the recordings. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'm Jim Metzner.