If you've been following this week's series on the 21st Sunflower River Blues Festival last weekend in Clarksdale, Mississippi, you've read an overview by now, as well as a post on Willie King and the Liberators. I'd be seriously remiss, however, if I moved on to other subjects without posting specifically about Sharde Thomas & the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.
Sharde Thomas is the granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, a legend among those who know the blues, captured on film by Martin Scorsese in "Feel Like Going Home", a beautiful portrayal of the connection between the blues and the motherland of Africa. The film opens with Otha Turner and returns to him over and over throughout.
To see Otha with Sharde as a child in a film clip from that video, go here and click on "Watch the Preview." And to catch a glimpse of an even younger Sharde being groomed by her grandfather, check this out:
I just "happened" to watch "Feel Like Going Home" (the first in the renowned PBS series about the blues) two weeks before leaving for Clarksdale. Even on film, watching Otha and Sharde was mesmerizing. So, when I saw her and the band listed on the line-up of performers for Saturday, I made a mental note to make sure I caught their act.
I might have missed them. My running buddies and I had already been at the Blueberry Cafe venue for two and a half hours. We had all had breakfast. And we were ready to head out to see what else was shakin' when we heard the announcement that Sharde Thomas & the Rising Star band would be coming to that stage in a matter of minutes.
It was then that I saw her. Not big as a minute, and having lost all her baby fat, the strikingly beautiful young woman strode through the dining room like the African queen she knows she is, ignoring the crowd at the tables on her way to the back veranda to prepare herself with the band before they entered the door into the performance arena.Sharde Thomas, Clarksdale, MS, 2008
I was too excited to have any common sense. I followed her like a groupie.
"Are you the little girl that appears with Otha Turner on the documentary?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, nodding.
"I saw it just a couple of weeks ago," I stuttered, completely disarmed and unnerved. "Your grandfather was a remarkable man and what you're doing is terribly, terribly important. Thank you for carrying on the tradition."
Sharde Thomas was gracious considering that this middle-aged, middle-class-looking White woman was all up in her space right before she had to go on stage.
"Could I have your autograph on this band flyer?" I asked shyly, glad I had something besides my clothes for her to sign because I definitely was not going to let this opportunity pass without putting down some historical marker.
She didn't waste words, but signed the paper and I moved back into the dining room where I tipped Antoinette and Walter to Sharde's presence. They hustled out to take some photos and I made my way into the other room where the standing-room only audience was waiting expectantly. I positioned myself just inside the door they would enter and only about twenty feet from the stage.
Then the door opened and one of the most stirring, resonating sounds I'd ever heard made its way into the room and moved toward the stage in the form of four young people who were carrying Africa like a huge and invisible golden icon, bridging the gap of the past five hundred years as if it was an effortless task. They don't perform. They simply be. And while the skill they display is consummate, it's not their skills that the audience responds to. It's the heartbeat of the Earth pulsating through their instruments and their voices. Their music is not something they make. It's something they are. And the audience moves back and forth between reverent awe and broke loose expressive movement. When Sharde & the Rising Star came down off the stage to lead a processional to the main stage a block or so away, the audience followed them like baby ducks, bobbying and weaving and feeling the joy that buoys a people who have survived what none but them can ever know.
Sharde Thomas & the Rising Star Band, 2005
And lest you think the rivercane fife is the only pipe Sharde can play, listen to this:
Later, I sprang for one of the fifes a family member was selling. I chose the one I wanted out of the few they had brought along and before it was given to me, it was handed to Sharde. She played it, walked around with it for a few minutes, played it some more and then passed it to me. I carried it home like the artifact it is and will treasure it for the rest of my life.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood of Senatobia, Mississippi, for the Turner Family "Everybody Hollerin' Goat" Picnic on August 22nd and 23rd, you can see and hear Sharde Thomas & the Rising Star Fife and Drum band and a lot of other great music for yourself. Otha started hosting these picnics back in the 1950's and they must be something because people travel to get there. There's absolutely no question as to why.
The photos above were taken by Walter C. Black, Sr.