Delaware State University student re-creating songs of World War I

Jaden, left, and Christian Adkins are part of the 369th Experience Student Band who are taught the history and repertoire of the original Harlem Hellfighters band, which introduced the sounds of American ragtime to Europeans during World War I. They have performed at various armistice ceremonies around the country and next year, the world. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Growing up, brothers Jaden and Christian Adkins always believed that they would get a chance to showcase their musical talents during a monumental moment. It was just a matter of when it was going to happen.

“My parents told me to keep working hard and opportunities would come my way,” Jaden said.

As the nation honored its veteran’s from all branches of the Armed Forces during the recent Veterans Day weekend, the Delaware natives played a major role in remaking history in Washington, as part of the festivities.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice, a recreation of the 369th Regimental Band made up of students from historically black colleges, played a tribute to the Harlem Hellfighters and recreated the music of the 369th Regimental Band at Pershing Park, where the World War I Centennial Commission is currently in the process of creating the first World War I memorial in Washington.

Jaden, who is a freshmen at Delaware State University, plays the tuba, while his brother, who is a senior at Howard University plays the trumpet.

“I believed in what my parents told me and I worked hard,” Jaden said. “This opportunity came to me when I thought all of my hard work was going to waste. It will always be a moment that I will remember because of the people and the purpose that we were playing.”

Members of the new 369th Experience Student Band are taught the history and repertoire of the original Harlem Hellfighters band, which introduced the sounds of American ragtime to Europeans during World War I, and will retrace their steps by performing the band’s repertoire at centennial celebrations in New York City; Brest and Paris, France; and a host of other historical locales.

The band consists of 42 members. Christian joined the band in May and said the experience has been great so far.

“It’s been great performing with a group like this,” Christian said. “I’ve done things that I thought I would never do or have done a year ago.”

Jaden shared the same sentiment.

“I joined the band in November because of my brother,” Jaden said. “The experience has been very positive for me. I feel like a lot of performing opportunities will open for me in the future because I participated in the 369th Experience Band. The people are all great players and we are playing great music, which makes the band that better.”

The 369th Experience is part of a series of events endorsed by the World War I Centennial Commission and sponsored in part by The Coca-Cola Foundation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters was the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I. First constituted on June 2, 1913 as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, it was renamed to the 369th in 1918.

The Harlem Hellfighters quickly established a reputation for remarkable courage and effectiveness. In 191 days of combat, it is said they never lost a foot of ground or had a man taken prisoner, and only once failed to take an objective. They were the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the Rhine at the conclusion of the war.

One of its members, James Reese Europe, was charged with the task of forming a regiment band. Mr. Europe, a seasoned musician and bandleader, convinced his commanding officer to let him expand the normal size of a regiment band and to make a special recruiting visit to Puerto Rico.

By the time the regiment deployed for France in late 1917, nearly one-half of the 40-piece band was Puerto Rican. Once in Europe, they wowed British and French audiences unused to the syncopated rhythms in which the band’s members specialized.

“It means a lot to me performing because the original band was fighting with music for equality and they fought for the country on the front lines and never lost a soldier,” Jaden said.

During the performances both brothers said they weren’t nervous at all.

“I actually don’t get nervous anymore,” Jaden said. “I treated it like any other performance.”

Putting on a good performance is what truly matters to both brothers.

“For the performance on Memorial Day we only had three rehearsals,” Christian said.

“Two on the first day we got to New York and one the very next morning. Any other work that needed to be done on a part was done either in a sectional that was students led or on their own time.”

“But the experience was amazing,” he added. “A lot of people stopped to watch that day even though it was chilly. I was extremely proud to be apart of the band that day.”

The most recent performance was for Armistice Day on Nov. 12 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. There are other performances being scheduled for 2019.

Both brothers said it has been an experience they will cherish forever.

“It was exciting,” Christian said. “I look forward to the next one. I have performed with my brother a bunch of times throughout our lives, so doing something like this is just like any other performance. But it is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.”

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer

living in Dover.

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