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When the armies of America and Great Britain met on the battlefield during the American Revolution, they did so to the sound of music.
Each opposing force would march up with the sounds of a fife and drum corps playing in the background. Then, the hostilities would begin.
Fife and drum corps continued to be used into the American Civil War but, as time passed, their place within the military was diminished and the extinguished. But, the historic music found a home in civilian quarters, as patriotic Americans began to utilize the corps for celebrations and parades beginning in 1876, the Centennial Anniversary of the nation’s break with Great Britain.
That tradition continues strong to this day.
One would be hard pressed to find a Fourth of July event that didn't include a fife and drum corps. Those lining the streets in small towns all across the nation, waiting patiently for a celebratory parade to begin, assuredly expect to see the historic musical ensembles marching down “Main Street” to tunes heard during Paul Revere's time.
Cheshire is no different and, this Saturday, those who love fife and drum will be able to get their fix as a “muster” of regional and international groups will meet at Bartlem park to perform.
“Back in 2008, we were looking to do an anniversary event and we decided to do it in Cheshire,” said Brendon Mason, a native of Cheshire and a member of the Senior Ancient Drum Corps. “We had such a good experience that we decided we wanted to have this event in the same location.”
Mason, who plays the snare drum, stated that the event will feature 12 groups from the New England and tri-state area, and will also include a group from Switzerland. Each band will play a variety of musical selections that range from traditional patriotic tunes most commonly associated with fife and drum groups to more modern songs.
Fife and drum are ancient instruments that can date their origins back to pre-written history. The formation of fife and drum groups actually began in Switzerland and then spread throughout Europe centuries before America fought for its independence.
The main reason for the event at Bartlem, Mason stated, will be to say “goodbye” to the Switzerland-based group that has come to perform in America over the last few weeks. The Cheshire performance will be their final one before returning home.
“This is really their send off,” said Mason. “We wanted to have this event before they went home.”
Mason has been to Switzerland several times himself, and spoke of how the Swiss and the American fife and drum players have a mutual respect for one another. The styles of play are different, as the Swiss groups do not use bass drum nor regular fifes, but rather piccolos. The two sides commonly trade ideas and learn how to perform the other's tunes.
Also, Mason acknowledged that the seriousness with which fife and drum is taken in Switzerland far exceeds anything in America. Fife and drum corps in the U.S. are, Mason admits, a novelty that usually sparks interest only around the Fourth of July, whereas in Switzerland it evokes a national interest.
“I don't want to say that (fife and drum players) are rock stars, but there, they really appreciate the music,” said Mason. “Their festivals are a really big deal.”
Mason understands that mentality. His love of fife and drum was cemented at an early age. Virtually his entire family played in fife and drum, or was connected to it in some capacity, so it was no great shock that Mason would become entrenched in that world as well.
“Our fife and drum community is very large, and it is very odd,” said Mason, with a laugh. “This time of year, people bring in fife and drums from all over. There are always parades or festivals, and everyone wants fife and drum.”
A younger generation is also catching on, Mason insisted. A member of the Connecticut Patriots, Mason serves as an instructor at the Junior Fife and Drum Camp held in the state each year. While the music might still be viewed as a novelty, more and more families are getting their kids involved. That's because, according to Mason, it is an easy and cheap activity in which they can participate.
“It's a very economical thing to do,” said Mason. “You can go to camp, learn the music, and take advantage of this great opportunity for a lot less than other activities.”
On Saturday, however, Mason and his fellow fife and drum enthusiasts will have one thing on their mind: making sure those who come out enjoy a good show.
“There is going to be a lot of variety and everyone is going to have their own unique style,” Mason stated. “Hopefully, people will come out and experience music that is really embedded in our culture.”
The Fife and Drum Muster is scheduled to take place at Bartlem park between 1 and 5 p.m. this Saturday, July 23. Food will be provided by the Cheshire High School Marching Ram Band Parents Association. In case of inclement weather, the event will be moved to the Cheshire Youth and Social Services building at 84 South Main St.