The Sabathanites kept kids off the streets in a turbulent era
The Twin Cities boasts some of the country’s top entertainers: Prince, The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and “Sounds of Blackness.” Every name is well known locally and worldwide. But there was another local group that, if you were raised in Minneapolis, was just as familiar not so long ago — the Sabathanites Drum and Bugle Corp, a group of young people created in the late 1960s by the Sabathani Baptist Church.
MSR sat down to speak to one of the group’s original members, Jonathon Guilmant, who described the group as the combination of two other drum and bugle corps, the Katos and Elks from North Minneapolis.
Guilmant joined a progression of drum and bugle corps where he developed skills and proudly marched in parades. At 12 years old, he joined the Katos; a year later, he joined the Elks. In 1964, at age 14, he joined the newly formed Sabathanites in South Minneapolis.
“It’s one of those things when you’re a kid and you see folks marching and jamming and you join in thinking I’m going to do this one day.” But, as Guilmant pointed out, Leon Lewis, the group’s leader, insisted that schoolwork and grades had to be “up to par” in order to be in the group and march.
Guilmant started as a banner carrier and later progressed to playing the bugle. “I had no idea what I was doing — thank God reading music was not a requirement.” The songs were made up of beats.
“A lot of us would be at our desks in school banging like we were making beats,” he recalled. “We used to get garbage cans, cardboard boxes, etcetera. Those same beats are still stuck in our heads, even the folks who marched in the Elks.”
They performed at local and rural events, but the Minneapolis Aquatennial was their favorite event. “We were always in the back, thinking it was racially motivated. Turns out,” he comically stated, “if we were in front, that would have been the end of the show,” because people waited for the group and followed them along the streets to the end of the parade.
He remembered many times during road trips, after performing in rural areas, motorcycle gangs would follow the group out of town screaming, “Can’t you go any faster?” at the school bus. “I guess [they wanted] to make sure we were leaving town.”
In 1967, there were riots. “Police came on horses to disperse the crowd in downtown Minneapolis, not too far from the courthouse.”
From that moment on the Sabathanites would no longer perform in the Aquatennial. They continued to boycott the event for 40 years until 2010, when Mayor R.T. Rybak asked them to come back and honored them by proclaiming the Aquatennial event as “Sabathanites Day.”
These experiences taught Guilmant and other Sabathanites the meaning of teamwork and unity. “We had to stick together. [And] nobody disrespected the women [in the group],” who also marched in parades.
He still performs with the group, playing the bass drum at neighborhood events for Sabathani, carnivals at Martin Luther King Park, and South Side Day. “People don’t know the hard work that really goes into it,” said Guilmant. “You’re marching with heavy drums for miles information. That takes strength.”
The sounds of drums and marching are what he calls a “historical sound” that he would like to share [with] the new generation, but he finds that a bit of a challenge. “People [in the group] are getting a little nervous now. We try to keep it going, but once we are done, that’s it. The age catches up to you. There are about 11 of us now.”
Guilmant reports that nowadays they will just get together to have a jam session, hoping the legendary marching will bring a revitalization to a new generation. He feels it will teach discipline and responsibility.
“We could possibly give them homework help with extra-curricular activities. It would help get them off the streets.”
Other notables who marched in the Sabathanites were Gary D. Hines, music director and producer of Grammy Award-winning “Sounds of Blackness,” and Judith Hence, editor-in-chief for the MSR.
Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org