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Philly drum lines: Show some respect - we're your history

After a proposed ban public drumming, drill team leaders wonder why they aren't more appreciated.

Terrell Hill, 11, of the Zodiac Percussion Drum Line, looks to one of the older drummers, as they make their way down Columbus Boulevard on September 4, 2017. A bill would have regulated drum lines in Center City.
Terrell Hill, 11, of the Zodiac Percussion Drum Line, looks to one of the older drummers, as they make their way down Columbus Boulevard on September 4, 2017. A bill would have regulated drum lines in Center City.Read moreMichael Bryant

It's not that Antoine Mapp doesn't know where City Councilman Mark Squilla's briefly proposed ban on public drumming in Center City was coming from.

Mapp, assistant director of the West Powelton Steppers and Drum Squad, has heard about the groups that play in "regular clothes, at 10 o'clock at night, asking for money." From a tradition that prides itself on precision and where the dress code is often uniforms — if not full out military-inspired regalia –he considers those groups "bad seeds."

But still, Mapp doesn't feel any municipal appreciation or support for drill teams.

"That was going to affect us tremendously," he said of the bill, which Squilla tabled last week on the eve of Council consideration. Drill teams and drum corps in Philadelphia are largely community-based, youth-focused organizations that take up residence not at concert halls, but schools and community centers.

In fact, some experts question why, rather than being a topic of legislation, Philadelphia's rich drum culture is not touted as a tourism draw.

"We're losing an opportunity if they just see it as noise," said Florida State University folklorist Jerrilyn McGregory.

When Benita Brown — director of Virginia State University's Sankofa Dance Theatre and North Philly native — tells people that Philadelphia had a Congo Square, people rarely believe her.

New Orleans' Congo Square draws visitors with its legacy for music-making among Colonial-era slaves. Philadelphia's own such place was Washington Square. In the 18th century, according to the Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the olden time, slaves would gather for dances there with crowds that could reach a thousand people.

"Philadelphia has created various narratives about its own history," said historian Dana Dorman. "For whatever reason, the story that it chose for Washington Square was more about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Revolutionary War, rather than these earlier activities."

A Visit Philadelphia spokeswoman said they did not have a position at this time on drum lines and local tourism efforts.

Many strains of black marching band culture — whether it be the large, highly competitive bands of historically black colleges and universities, the second line parades of New Orleans, or the drill teams and drum squads of the urban North — can be traced to mutual-aid societies. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, African Americans were limited from buying insurance. Black mutual aid societies sought to provide an alternative, often forming their own community bands too.

The first black mutual-aid society in the country was founded in Philadelphia: Richard Allen's Free African Society. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that  Philadelphia had 106 of these organizations in 1848. These numbers ballooned after slavery was abolished, with DuBois noting in 1899 that there were "probably several hundred."  In 1966, while analyzing the history of these groups, Commentary magazine highlighted Philadelphia as a base where they blossomed prodigiously.

While marching brass bands faded in popularity, the youth groups persisted. After the raging gang wars of 1970s, band coordinators had already begun using their step and drum units as a means to keep kids off the streets.

What if, Brown and McGregory question, Philadelphia treated its drill teams like New Orleans celebrates its second lines? Mapp and Marks want to know why the local drummers aren't treated the same as another cherished tradition.

"They brand the Mummers. They need to brand us. We bring the soul," said Mapp. "We need a mural. We need something. They should recognize us."

Anne Kelly, the chief of staff for Councilman Squilla, said the bill would not move forward in part because of heated opposition, which surprised those in her office. Squilla drafted the bill after complaints from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, she said. Hospital representatives, Kelly said, complained that patients could hear the drumlines marching "late into the night."

Even established drum lines solicit for money downtown — equipment and the competition circuit can be expensive — but some groups, like Mapp's, would never have kids performing at night. He believes it's wrong.

Still, with the backlash, Squilla's office has learned more about the tradition's musical history.

Celestine Marks first started to drill back in 1963, when she was 9 years old. She was a member of an all-girl marching corps called the Topcats. Her Conestoga Angels have packed events, festivals and invited performances in theaters, she said. She wishes the culture had a museum.

"It would show that we're more than people think we are. They're stereotyping us," she said. "We're just making noise, or we're just trying to make money. We should get the same respect that college bands and Caucasian [school] bands get."

Mapp's group performs for the Philadelphia 76ers as the Sixers Stixers. While the team has offered Mapp's group space to practice, the commute to Camden is too far for the squad, Mapp said. For most of the year, they practice in his friend's living room.

"There's nothing really out here for us," said Mapp. "We try to create these lanes that they want to take away."