Cowbell, a drumline cadence which focuses on the tenor drums, has been getting students out of their seats, pleading for a faster tempo for over a decade at athletic events at Ames High. The cadence started not at Ames High, but 10 minutes away at Iowa State University in the mid 1990s.
Ujjal Bhattacharyya (AHS 2012) was the first person at Ames High to play Cowbell, and by doing so, he left a legacy of technical tenor playing. Along with Cowbell, the AHS drumline has been slowing it down now with BOE, another drum cadence, since 2010.
“We never had any communication with Iowa State for sheet music for the solo or ensemble parts, so I learned the solo by ear from an ISU percussion ensemble CD,” Bhattacharyya said. “I listened to that track over and over again, both at tempo and slowed down to get it mostly right.”
At first, the cadence was seemingly out of reach, especially due to the fact that as Bhattacharyya mentioned, there was no sheet music that the drumline could just read.
“Ujjal was the one who brought it to me and said ‘Hey, can we do this cadence?’,” former AHS band director Chris Ewan recalled. “OK, if you think we can do it Ujjal, we can try. It doesn’t hurt to try.”
According to Bhattacharyya, the desire to play Cowbell was encouraged by the number of people who thought the AHS drumline would not be able to play it. He recalls how special it is to see this tradition continue and also be included into the drumline handbook which is given to players at the start of band season.
“Playing Cowbell (for me) was one of the first times where the general feeling was that something was not possible for me to do and then just going out and doing it,” Bhattacharyya continues. “It was definitely beyond our skill level at the time to be playing that but it didn’t matter to us because we were passionate about it and that underdog energy is what might have hyped people up more than technical perfection would have.”
Bhattacharyya continued to defy odds as he was the first tenor person to play upside down at AHS. He did so with the help of fellow drumline friends.
“It’s a tradition to play after halftime and the student body got into it and now it’s exploded into a thing that’s expected at games and pep rallies,” Ewan said.
Current tenors player, junior Akshay Sarda corroborates the words of Ewan.
“I think Cowbell is one of the only traditions our entire school knows about,” he said. “Because we have played multiple times at various school events, like the assembly on our first day, everyone knows what is going on and what will happen. In my opinion, that makes it more exciting because everyone can have fun with it; they can yell, hush, and dance. Cowbell is a good example of one of the links our individual communities within AHS have that ties them all together.”
The marching band at AHS, whose membership numbers have been over 250 for several years, uses the Cowbell cadence to form connections between the members and various sections from piccolos to sousaphones.
“As a freshman walking into the band, we’ve tried to build it into something we do at band camp,” Ewan said. “They’re all like ‘This is crazy, why would I do this?’ Once they start being a part of it, it just becomes a ‘Oh, this is the family thing we do!’ It doesn’t matter who you are, everybody can participate.”