What’s a parade without a marching band?
In the amazing life of Amari Ajamu, it’s a prelude.
Monday evening’s drive-thru graduation parade for Amari, Soulsville Charter School and Stax Music Academy, Class of 2020, included 32 vehicles, a lot of balloons and honking horns, and one trumpeter playing Pomp and Circumstance.
It did not include a marching band.
“I brought my snare drum, just in case,” Amari said as he stood outside his house waiting for the parade to begin. He was wearing a Royal Purple graduation cap to mark the occasion, and a face mask to mark the times.
COVID-19 canceled his prom, his college decision day ceremony, his graduation ceremony and even interfered with his 18th birthday.
It didn’t stop his family, friends and neighbors from proudly and loudly celebrating their high school graduate.
It won’t stop Amari from attending — drumroll, please ….. Grambling State University, where he will become a fourth-generation student and a drummer in the school’s marching band.
That’s the World Famed Tiger Marching Band.
The band that played in the first two Super Bowls.
The band that played at George W. Bush’s inaugural parade in 2001, and at both of Barack Obama’s inaugurations in 2009 and 2013.
The band that performed in the movie “Drumline” in 2002, the year Amari was born.
And the band that performed four years later with a little boy from Memphis who was attending a GSU homecoming game with his parents.
Tiny Amari was toting a tiny snare drum and wearing a black and gold GSU band uniform his grandmother, Lillie McNeil Blair, made for him.
“I remember the first time I saw that band, heard that sound,” Amari said. “It just grabbed me from the beginning. I feel like I was put here to do this. It was the first thing on my mind before I can even remember.”
‘A miracle we both made it’
Amari spent the first six weeks of his life in neonatal intensive care hearing the beats of pumps, monitors and other life-support equipment.
He was born three months prematurely from a mother who had suffered three previous miscarriages.
“I cried a lot during that pregnancy,” said his mother, Veda Ajamu. “I was in a lot of pain. There were times, honestly, when I told God, ‘Don’t let me suffer like this. Just take me.’ It’s a miracle we both made it.”
Veda’s third baby was due June 21, 2002. Her water broke April 2 — 12 weeks early.
Doctors tried to stave off delivery, but the placenta was detaching from Veda’s uterus. Her blood pressure was dropping. The baby’s heartbeat was slowing.
On April 3, 2002, in an emergency C-section, Veda gave birth to a boy. He weighed 2 pounds, 9 ounces. They named him Amari Yusef.
Amari is an African name. It means “strength” and “builder.” Yusef is an Arabic name. It means “God adds” or “God will multiply.”
“I’d be in the ICU just standing over him crying,” Veda said. “My grandmother would come over and say, ‘Stop that crying. Amari’s just fine. He’s special.’ ”
Amari’s daily visitors included his 14-year-old sister Denisecia, who grew up to become a NICU nurse.
Denisecia attended Tennessee State University in Nashville. Their sister, Nzinga, is a junior there now. Amari applied and was accepted to TSU.
”When Amari read the letter, Nzinga got her TSU pom pom and ran, screamed and danced through the house saying, ‘Yes, Bubbie,’ as she calls him.”
Both sisters tried to persuade Amari to become a TSU Tiger and join its World Renowned Aristrocrat of Bands.
Amari thought about it, but he ultimately decided to become a Grambling Tiger, like his father, his father’s parents, and his father’s great aunt.
‘Something about that beat’
Grambling State, one of 107 historically black colleges and universities, was founded near Shreveport in northern Louisiana in 1901.
Around the same time in the southern part of the state, a New Orleans musician named Dee Dee Chandler was creating the first drum set.
Chandler used wood, rope and a milk carton to make a foot pedal for his bass drum. It freed both of his hands to play the snare and cymbal while his foot worked the bass.
Amari’s first drum set was a plastic toy version he got when he was about three, a gift from his Uncle James.
His father gave him a mini djembe African drum.
“Amari took to the drums right away,” said Olori Ajuma. “I was the same way.”
Olori grew up in Louisiana. His grandmother played the piano. An older cousin played the trumpet and drums. Olori took to the drums and played in his high school marching band.
“Just something about that beat,” Olori said.
Olori and Amari have played together many times as members of the Nubian Theatre Company.
“I love the sound of them drumming, especially together,” Veda said. “I didn’t fall in love with it until Amari started playing.”
‘Amari has an old soul’
Monday evening’s parade included fellow classmates, Pat Mitchell-Worley, Stax Academy’s executive director, and Paul McKinney, instrumental music director, who got out of his car and played Pomp and Circumstance on his trumpet.
“Amari is an even better young man than he is a percussionist,” McKinney said. “And he’s an incredibly talented percussionist. You can tell he grew up in a musical family.”
You can find an eight-minute YouTube video that follows Amari from little drummer boy to Stax Academy star.
In one black-and-white clip, Amari walks into his bedroom on his fifth birthday to find his first real drum set.
He stares briefly in amazement, then walks over to the set, sits on the stool behind it, picks up the sticks, and starts playing.
He’s not just hitting the cymbal and snare and tom with his sticks. He’s playing them.
“I was just trying to come up with some kind of rhythm,” Amari said.
In another clip, tiny six-year-old Amari stands undaunted in the middle of Grambling’s marching band.
He’s wearing a Grambling gold polo shirt, swaying and playing his snare as if he’s in the band.
“The snare just captivates me, it always has,” Amari said.
There are several clips of Amari performing with his fellow musicians from Stax Music Academy, which his Aunt Velvet helped him to attend.
In the opening clip, Amari’s wallet is draped over the edge of a snare, Al Jackson Jr. style.
“I’ve heard a lot about him at Stax,” Amari said of Jackson, the legendary drummer who played on nearly every Stax hit. “He was so versatile. I’m trying to be that versatile. I’m going to take Stax and Memphis with me wherever I go.”
Like his father, Amari doesn’t have a favorite genre of music. He plays hip-hop, R&B, blues, gospel, funk, jazz, soul and neo soul. Which is to say he plays Memphis music.
“Amari has an old soul, a Memphis soul,” said his mother, Veda. “Maybe that’s why he couldn’t wait to get here.”
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.