Boumpani, the Wise DUMB Director

Writer: 
January 31, 2003
Boumpani: striking up the Pep Band

Boumpani: striking up the Pep Band. Photo: John Gardiner

 
 

In a leil Boumpani grew up very quietly in Middlesex, New Jersey, where, as a boy, he hardly made a peep, and this was odd both because Boumpani is Italian and because he was born with an passion for making music. His mother was worried, he says. She did her best to push him into "social environments."

First, he tried cross-country, but that was just as lonely as standing still. Then, in the seventh grade, she took him to meet the band teacher at his school, Mr. Pirone, a gentle, silver-haired man whose passion for making music was as contagious as chickenpox ,and who persuaded Boumpani to join the band. "I am eternally grateful for that," he says. "The band made me who I am today."

Today Boumpani is the director of the Duke University Marching Band (DUMB), which he has been for sixteen years, and which has made his adulthood, by contrast, very loud. Music has left its mark on the man: a feeble voice, constant ringing in both ears, sudden blinding migraines--"all the muscles in my head tense up," he says. But Boumpani is the instrument of his own decline. He wants it loud. Volume is all-important to the marching band, he says, because the band represents the team, and the team represents the university. It's sound logic: We associate thunder with a powerful storm. Why shouldn't we associate thundering music with a powerful team?

That was one idea behind the creation of the military band, the forerunner of the halftime show, which was not quite as lethal as the cannon, but had an effect of some note. Trumpets blasted. Drums pounded. Tubas shook the air. "During the Crimean War," writes the musician and historian Henry Farmer, "the French delighted in repeating the bon mot that their band did as much to drive the Russians back as their bayonets." The Civil War was also a contest of cadence and a battle of brass: "Dixie" terrified Union troops; the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was not music to Rebel ears. Music then, and long before, was a warning and a weapon. And music now, in the form of a marching or a pep band--and via "March King" John Philip Sousa--is something we have come to regard as the sound of team spirit. It is what drives Cameron crazy and gives football fans a reason to clap.

During rehearsal the day before a game, Boumpani stalks the formation, inspecting posture and movement and keeping time with one hand. He wears a mustache and smokes a pipe. He nods when things are "tight" and "full" (amplified) and seems to delight in the magnitude of his voice over the microphone clipped to his collar. In order to make certain a star formation looks like a star, he will stand high above in the bleachers that overlook the practice field, like a general overseeing his troops.

But for all his removal, Boumpani is still in the band. Students call him the "Godfather." They rib him about things he says and the way he says them. Usually, Boumpani will ignore the jokes, but sometimes he will just appear to when, really, he's thinking of a comeback. And when he delivers, usually deadpan and usually golden, everyone laughs. Then he half-smiles and says, "okay, okay, enough." It is Boumpani's belief that, while the band is a musical organization, it is, perhaps more important, a social one. "Long after you forget the shows we do, you will remember the people with whom you marched," he tells them.

Sarah Peden, a senior, is the size of a piccolo. She is from South Africa, and she moved to the United States just in time to see Christian Laettner hit "the shot" in 1991. "I ran over to my dad and said, 'I want to go to Duke!' I thought since I play an instrument, I could be in the band and actually go to those games."

A clarinetist does not do a lot for volume. But Peden says she adds to the depth of the sound, which is important, too. People might not hear every note, she explains, but without the woodwinds, the band would have an awful blaring sound. "I have a role. I'm part of a group. It's nice."

Marching bands fall into one of two catagories. The Duke version is the most common: A director plans and outlines marches and music weeks in advance. Boumpani charts the way the formations should move, using a map of the field. Last season's Jupiter drum solo called for a complex pinwheeling motion that looks something like the football team's double-reverse but requires that no one run into anyone else. Coordinating the foot speed and direction of a hundred people while listening for weak spots requires extreme focus, and can be, as one might imagine, a bit unnerving.

However, says Boumpani, planning formations is nothing compared to arranging music. You cannot play the first twelve minutes of a piece and call it a show. You have to reduce it to scale. Boumpani spends days cutting away, excising clarinet and flute solos that don't carry well in a stadium, inserting transitions and parts for instruments not included in the original. He listens, rearranges, listens again, rearranges--much like making a mixed tape--and then, somehow, emerges with a compact, all-member-inclusive, halftime show that half the audience misses while waiting in line for a hot pretzel. "Few people really understand how much work goes into one halftime performance," he says.

Then there's that other group. "Scatter bands," Boumpani says, which Duke is definitely not, because Tom Butters, former athletics director, and Joe Alleva, his successor, don't want to see stuff like that. "They go out there and run around and maybe make a form, and maybe one person decides to run around like a moron. The athletics department decided that we're either going to do it the right way or we're not going to do it at all. We're the only band in the ACC with so little resources that hasn't resorted to silliness."

In the Sixties, before there were Cameron Crazies, marching-band members were the school's clever enthusiasts. They upheld the notion that they were in college to raise hell and the best way to do that was to join the band. They spelled "PUKE" on the field, played "welcoming shows" (visiting team's fight song outside visiting team's hotel at 3 a.m. the morning before a game), and distributed an internal manual, still extant, known as the DUMBook, "printed annually by the DUMBpress, slingers of DUMBull since 1235." The manual is the band member's bible, with instructions and advice on everything from proper marching technique to keeping the uniform clean. "Shine your belt buckle: It won't take you five minutes with a blitz cloth, which you can purchase for two bits in the Dope Shop or steal from one of those NROTC fellas." In it, just as in most everything DUMB, there is a faintly risible undercurrent: the uniforms, the military pomp, the exaggerated movements.

Yet, today's members display a certain reserve. They enjoy themselves--but they work hard. They show respect for authority, for the drum major, and for Boumpani. "They want to be good," he says. "They take it very seriously. We had a guy named Brian Mangum who just graduated. He came in and he turned the drum line around. He would make them stay after practice for an hour and he would yell and curse and throw his drum stick when they messed up."

The new attitude doesn't mean the band has lost its sense of spirit--it is the spirit. And the antics--like belly-crawling on the sidelines at the Army game while trombones provide cover fire--will continue. It just means the band won't be going by its initials anymore. "We're trying to move away from the whole DUMB thing," says Nick Superina, the band president. "We took it off the shirts. But it's still on the hats." The hats are next.

So be careful who you go calling "DUMB" around here. He could have a tuba on him.