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Bracing for the Battle of the Bands

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Atlanta's Battle of the Bands is an annual competition among marching bands from historically black colleges and universities. Practice sessions were intense at Clark Atlanta University, made famous in the movie Drumline.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Super Bowl of college marching band competitions will take place today. Student from 10 historically black colleges and universities take the field in Atlanta for the Honda Battle of the Bands. NPR's Kathy Lohr has been following the Clark Atlanta University Panthers as they prepare for their big day.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

One this is for sure, it takes a lot practice to be invited to play in this show. In the band room under the Clark Atlanta University stadium, 118 band members give their full attention to student director Blake Williams as they perfect their sound.

Mr. BLAKE WILLIAMS (Director, Clark Atlanta University Band): Here we go. We're going to start from the top of the show.

LOHR: Williams is all business knowing the band is just three days from its performance in the Georgia Dome.

(Soundbite from band practice)

LOHR: The music is just one part of the package. The spectacular dancing, the moves, the creativity and the showmanship, that's what makes watching these marching bands so exciting. DeShawn(ph) Safford(ph) is a senior who plays alto saxophone.

Mr. DESHAWN SAFFORD (Senior, Clark Atlanta University): Dancing and the high stepping and just the energy, that's what I think they're coming to see. Especially, me, I like stuff that's vibrant anyway and radiant anyway. So I'm going to put on a show regardless. (laughter)

LOHR: It was the Clark Atlanta band that was made famous in the recent movie 'Drumline'. It also revealed the Battle of the Bands competition on the big screen and the hard work it takes to get there.

(Soundbite of movie 'Drumline')

LOHR: The film showed the rigorous training members face, running up and down the stadium steps with their instruments and working in the rain just to get in the band. Safford says, being chosen for the Battle of the Bands is an honor.

Mr. SAFFORD: It's very serious. Look at all the practice we've put that's involved, all of the rehearsals that's involved, all the criticism, all the critiques, and then as far as them paying to get tickets to come in there; and then Ticketmaster selling out maybe two weeks before the show even started, that's pretty serious.

LOHR: Serious enough that late into the night on the practice field, the band is still polishing its routine.

(Soundbite of band practice)

LOHR: It's cold out tonight. Students are dressed in sweatpants and jackets as they march in the yellow glow of stadium lights.

(Soundbite of band practice)

LOHR: The band strikes up not oldies but current stuff, sounds you might here on the radio today. They march, but they also shake, roll, dip and kick with their instruments. These kids even sing.

(Soundbite of band practice)

LOHR: Clark Atlanta will face marching bands from other historically black colleges and universities, including Florida A&M, North Carolina Central, and Prairie View A&M. For Clark Atlanta seniors like DeShawn Safford, this will be their last performance.

Mr. SAFFORD: You want to show off. You want to dance and march as it's your last show, and that's what I'm going to do.

LOHR: There are no winners or losers in the Battle of the Bands showcase. Safford and the Panthers are going for the chance to claim bragging rights against 10 other bands competing at the Georgia Dome. It's become the hot place to be. Last year the $10.00 tickets went for as high as $50.00, and 70,00 fans are expected again this year.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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