Growing up next door to her grandfather–the late master fife player Otha Turner–Sharde Thomas was captivated by his music and how he could “cast a spell” on his audience. Turner first showed Sharde how to hold a fife and how to breathe into it, but he set her loose on the instrument after that. She learned on her own by making up songs and playing the tunes to traditional games like “Little Sally Walker,” which she picked up from her mother and her aunt.
Today, Sharde leads the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band, which Turner founded in the 1960s. Her musical style is deeply connected to the tradition she was born into but uniquely her own. She takes influences from hip hop as well as R&B icons like Beyoncé and Alicia Keys. The Rising Stars still play many of Turner’s signature songs–such as “Shimmy She Wobble” and “Glory Hallelujah”–but “remixed,” with more upbeat tempos. These classics fill their setlists alongside the band’s originals as well as songs by popular contemporary artists like Adele, helping to pull in new audiences.
Along with all her innovation, Sharde takes her grandfather’s legacy seriously. The Rising Stars have retained the same format as Turner’s original band that includes two snare drums and one bass drum giving their music a “marching band feel.” Sharde still has one of Turner’s fifes too, which she brings out at least once during each show. “I feel his spirit every show,” she says. “I know he’s continuing watching down on us and the band, and motivating me to continue to push the band as high as I can. I’ll definitely continue to do that to keep his name living through us.”
The Rising Stars have played at major events like the New Orleans Jazz Festival and with big names such as Mavis Staples and Eric Clapton. But Sharde’s favorite shows are at smaller festivals, like the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, where she can more easily connect with the audience and get them dancing. After years of musical success, Sharde finally feels worthy of calling herself a “Fife Master.” But that doesn’t mean she’s done improving. “I’m always pushing myself to be better,” she explains. Of her grandfather, she says “I want to continue to make him proud.”