Brian Wilemon, a father of two from Bay St. Louis, had one goal in mind when he started his drumline.
“I thought it would be a way to have fun and play at the Shuckers games and drink some beer,” Wilemon said. “I had high expectations of having a good time.”
Two years later, however, Wilemon’s vision has far outgrown his initial intentions. He is the founder of the Bay Ratz Marching Battery, a drum and marching group that now has 40 members, its own board of trustees and a status with the state of Mississippi as a nonprofit group.
“This has grown into something much bigger than just being about me,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t something I could do half-way because the kids are so talented and they’re so passionate — I’m trying to use it as a vehicle to get kids college scholarships.”
From humble beginnings
Wilemon grew up in the North Mississippi town of West Point with a single parent, a mother who worked long hours to provide for him and his sister. He said he found great joy in being a member of the drumline of the West Point High School Band.
“It was a big drumline and the instructors made all of the difference — they were drummers from Jackson State and Delta State and they were every influential,” he said. “They helped maker the experience as awesome as it was.”
He said he learned much more than just how to play drums and read music.
“It gave me the sense of individuality and how to be a part of a team — you had to do your best for the greater good of the bigger machine,” Wilemon said. “You had to have the grades to play, you had to have physical ability, you had to have the discipline to practice and you had to get along with people you weren’t normally going to hang out with.”
From mice to ratz
Of the 40 members of the marching battery, Wilemon said they range in age from 6 to high school seniors, with a few parents participating, as well.
The drumline has two categories — mice and ratz. Wilemon said the mice group is for the younger children and those with the least amount of experience. He said the goal is to get them to the ratz level.
“The mice is the beginner group, it’s where they learn to read music, learn percussion techniques on the different instruments and they have to learn to to march,” he said. “The ratz are the older kids and they are encouraged to write their own music and advance themselves in the percussive arts.”
“Youth ambassadors for the Coast”
Although Wilemon said he is proud of the work his group does, he said the diversity of the group is one of its major keys to success.
“The kids are from all socioeconomic backgrounds and it’s a multiracial and multicultural group and they are all high-achieving terrific kids and I consider them to be youth ambassadors for the Coast,” he said. “When people complain about ‘the kids of today,’ I present to them the Bay Ratz Marching Battery.”
Although drumlines are usually mostly men, the Bay Ratz are almost 50 percent females.
“Female marching percussionist are like unicorns. They are rarely seen because it’s such a male-dominated field, but 50 percent of my line is female and they are awesome,” Wilemon said.
Practice makes perfect
During the summer months, Wilemon has been practicing his drumline twice a week. They usually perform at least twice a month and they have played at Second Saturday’s in Bay St. Louis and the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.
“We played the Feed the Need benefit in Ocean Springs with Blackwater Brass and it was a great show,” he said.
Wilemon said that he is looking for new members to be a part of the group.
“We’re losing some people who are going off to college and we are always looking for kids that want to learn how to play the drums and be part of a great thing,” he said. “If people want to know more information about the Ratz or would like to join us, they can get the information at our website, bayratzmarchingbattery.com.”