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Otha Turner and Sharde Thomas

Gravel Springs, MS 1996

Master fife player Otha Turner lived most of his 95 years in the North Mississippi Hill Country, playing African-American style fife and drum music for over 80 of those years. During that time, he saw the tradition of fife and drum picnics and culture slowly disappear, just as it had gone extinct in one community after another in the rural South, until he lead one of the last known fife and drum bands. Starting in the early 90’s he began training several of his grandchildren in the musical tradition, mostly on drums, and they performed with him regionally and at festivals as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. While several of his younger family members attempted to play the cane fife, it wasn’t until his youngest granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, took an interest in the fife that he found his true protege. At his annual fife and drum picnic in August of 1996, Sharde made her public debut leading the drummers for the first time at age 6 yrs. old. This photo was made at that moment, revealing the joy on the often-stern elder fife player’s face as he realizes his legacy is secure in her hands. Thomas, now aged 33, not only leads the band, but has traveled around the world showcasing this unique and important American musical art form. 

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