Othar (or Otha) Turner died in February 2003 at ninety-five. He learned to make and play a bamboo cane fife as a youth, from an old man who told him that the drumming that accompanied the fife came from Africa. Turner worked a small farm in northern Mississippi for most of his life, and most of what he and his family ate, he raised. Asked to perform for a dance production in Tennessee one time, he agreed to do so in exchange for 200 pounds of dog food and two live chickens.
The music of Turner and his Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, along with that of other African American fife-and-drum groups that survived in Mississippi, feels more African than almost any other music made by black Americans. Turner played little tunes on his fife, things like “Station Blues” (“Sittin’ on Top of the World”) or older folk songs or dances, and a contingent of snare and bass drummers, mostly members of his extended family, would pick up the thread of what he was doing and add rhythmic layers that rang through the hot Mississippi air and stirred shouts from onlookers. Externally these rhythms resemble those of a marching band, but they are treated in African ways.
African American fife-and-drum music predates the blues. (Turner also played the blues and sometimes mixed the two forms; it’s striking, when you hear the results, to experience the blues as a modern, novel element, more individualistic than what came before.) The tradition in which Turner worked was one of several — the spiritual was the most important — that established African American musical culture itself: denied the chance to perform African music and observe African religions, slaves Africanized forms that they borrowed from white Americans. Just as the shell of the early spiritual drew on pieces of Protestant hymnody, so Turner’s music drew on that of the colonial-era fife-and-drum corps. But just as the heart of the spiritual lay in its call-and-response patterns and in its awesome communal power, so too is the heart of Turner’s music African in its massed and texturally modulated percussion, in its interaction between leader and group, and in the way it incorporates the audience into the musical experience.
Othar Turner was thought to be the last of his kind, but his descendants are carrying on with his music. The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band appears on Thursday, October 21, at the Blind Pig. It opens for the North Mississippi All-Stars, a band whose leader, Luther Dickinson, helped bring the Rising Star’s music to the world’s attention and produced the ninety-year-old Turner’s recording debut, Everybody Hollerin’ Goat.