Meet the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South. M4 for short. The 240-piece marching band accompanies the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Division I football team, the Golden Lions, which has had a single win this season out of seven games and which lost 45-3 against the Razorbacks in a historic in-state game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock today. It’s the first time the Razorbacks have faced an in-state opponent since 1944. The Hogs, much-lionized in the Sam Pittman era and rightly so, won handily and swiftly. Nobody expected things to go much differently.
But on the south side of the stadium around 9:45 a.m. today, the Golden Lions’ fighting spirit was alive and well. A caterpillar-shaped crowd gathered along the snaking lines of the marching band’s ranks as M4 assembled for entry into the stadium gates. “Give it to ’em!,” a woman shouted at the woodwinds. “I wanna hear ya ROAR!” Another woman stopped short to pick up her cell phone, answering her caller with a “Hey! We’re over here waitin’ to hear the band tune up, see if they do somethin’!” A piccolo player milled around with a quizzical expression and asked, “What are we supposed to be doing?” And then, drum major Kendric Kelley answered that question with a series of short, sharp shrieks from a tiny pink whistle. The snare drums added some further instructions, and the band was suddenly on the move — a sea of black and gold in perpetual motion. UAPB sophomore and “Golden Girl” dancer Caris Bates followed alongside, toting a rolling suitcase behind her with some of the band’s accessories.
“HBCU in the house!,” someone shouted. A 20-member-strong alto sax section paraded by, then half as many tubas, all cradling their instruments in white gloves and emitting a “Whoo!” in unison at some imperceptible cue. A singsong chant broke out: “Marching musical machine of the Mid-South! Let’s get funky!” Parents of members of the band cheered them on with fervor that’s too often reserved for the football team.
And from the looks of that halftime show, it’s no wonder. M4’s sound is gargantuan, and these instrumentalists are uncommonly keen multitaskers on the field, managing not only to play the notes and move in pristine geometrical formations, but to dance while they do it. They did the running man. They stepped. A breakdancing quartet of drum majors, sporting tall white cylindrical shako hats, did backbends and touched the ground behind them with the tips of their hats. They spelled out “UAPB” on the field and went into spacious grid formations (marching bands are the Original Social Distancers) without losing an ounce of volume. The Golden Lions dancers — like majorettes, but “no batons,” Bates had affirmed — did cartwheels and vogues and body rolls. You know that cool street dance move where you bend far enough backward that you can touch your hand to the ground behind you and then push off of it to pop back up? The WHOLE BAND DID IT. In unison. AND raised their instruments to the sky with the other hand. The crowd went nuts.
“This is the only show band in the state of Arkansas,” Ashdown native Harold Fooster said from the bleachers during the second quarter. “Our marching style incorporates high step, dance choreography, pop tunes.” He’s the assistant director and percussion instructor at UAPB, and he’s been there since 1998. He’s a graduate of Henderson State, and after finishing his master’s degree at the University of North Texas, he answered the call from UAPB offering him a position working with the band’s percussion — the backbone of any great marching band. I asked him how it felt to be out with M4 after such a hard week for the university, whose homecoming celebrations were marred by a deadly shooting.
“It’s more like a release,” Fooster said. “The students love this. They love to travel. They love performing for a huge crowd.” Two of the Arkansas Razorbacks, he noted, are from Ashdown, but clad in UAPB’s black and gold, it was pretty clear where his loyalties lie. Around 95 percent of the students in M4, he estimates, are there on band scholarships, and the band has students from California, Michigan, Atlanta, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.
“This is really a historic event, being the first time that you have UAPB and Arkansas,” he said. “Also special is what we’re gonna be doing at halftime. We’ll combine both bands with a dedication to the cure for cancer. We’ve got this Michael Jackson song we want to do,” he said. “‘Beat It.’ You know, like, ‘beat cancer.’ ” The collaboration came about when the UA-Fayetteville band director reached out to UAPB band director John Graham, a graduate of Central High.
And when, for the joint performance, the sea of musicians in black and gold yielded half the Astroturf to the opposing team’s sea of musicians in red and white, it kinda did feel like history. The whole field was consumed by musicians in motion, endzone to endzone, showing us what it looks like when 500 people get together and decide to do something in complete lockstep.