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July 16, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Are you ready for some oom-pah along the banks of the Wabash?

TERRE HAUTE — Any time I hear Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” the sound transports me to 1973, when that classic song bubbled from my parents’ car radio on the drive to Sheridan Park for my youth football games.

Music erases time. It reconnects the listener with a memory.

In a community sense, Terre Haute could experience such a flashback this weekend. Young musicians from Germany will serve as the featured guests — the closing act on both nights of the fourth-annual On the Banks of the Wabash Community Band Festival at the Fairbanks Park amphitheater. It’s essentially a friendly battle of the bands for concert band music, with clarinets, trombones and timpanis in place of electric guitars and heart-stopping drumbeats. Eight community bands from Indiana and Kentucky, including the Terre Haute Community Band, will join the German touring Gymnasium Heide-Ost Symphonic Band for approximately 11 hours of tunes spanning Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening.

The Gymnasium Heide-Ost outfit hails from Heide, a city of 21,000 people in the northern tip of Germany, near Denmark and the North Sea.

The GSO band consists of 44 teenagers — 14- to 19-year-old, college-bound high school students — touring the American Midwest with their instructors. Their tour is funded through the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Exchange Program in Michigan. Terre Haute festival organizers tried in previous years to land a band through the Blue Lake program, but schedules didn’t match up. This year, the stars aligned for the German youngsters and Terre Haute. “Our time frames married up perfectly to get them here,” said Jim Chesterson, who helps plan the Banks of the Wabash event along with Betty Martin.

Their performances, scheduled for 8 p.m. both Friday and Saturday, represent a reconnection to Terre Haute’s cultural past.

“Terre Haute has such a rich German history, and most of that was erased when [the United States] entered World War I,” explained Erika Cantin, a native of Germany and one of several Terre Haute residents hosting the visiting students and instructors in their homes during the group’s four-day stay here. “So we’ve lost a lot of our German history [in Terre Haute].” Famed residents Eugene Debs, Tony Hulman, Paul Dresser, Theodore Dreiser and Max Ehrmann came from German heritage.

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, and though the U.S. didn’t formally enter the conflict until 1917, it had an immediate impact in America. As the Indiana Historical Society account explains, large numbers of German immigrants across Indiana faced anti-German sentiment. As a result, Indiana schools ceased teaching German language, and Hoosiers of German ancestry anglicized their names to prove their American patriotism. In Terre Haute, German language newspapers ceased printing and German books were destroyed, explained Cantin.

“It was just overnight,” said Cantin, who’s taught German at Terre Haute North Vigo High School for the past 17 years.

The cultural connection eventually rekindled through the Terre Haute Oberlandler German Club, organized in 1967, and its popular Strassenfests and Oktoberfests, and the Bierstube restaurant, which opened in 1977 on Lafayette Avenue. Cantin is a member of the Oberlandlers and a longtime employee of the Bierstube.

Cantin, grateful for the support of her administrators, leads her North students on trips to her homeland each summer. Her high-schoolers also help at the Strassenfests and Oktoberfests. Many of her North students and their families are among 38 total Terre Haute families that are housing the visiting GSO musicians and teachers this weekend.

The award-winning band’s international visit — capping two days of concerts with free admission — presents a unique opportunity for the city. Cantin encourages residents to get out and hear the young performers and “chat them up and embrace that culture.”

She’ll be learning right along with everyone else. Though Cantin was born in Germany and spent the first 12 years of her life there, she grew up in Bavaria in the southern part of the country, near Munich, far from the GSO musicians’ hometown of Heide in the north. “The type of food and the dialect is different, just like the North and the South in the United States,” she said. So she’ll listen to their accents, study their recipes, and “compare notes.”

“It’s just a very different culture than I’m used to,” Cantin added.

Yet, they share a link. Terre Haute does, too. The songs the GSO band plans to play range from Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” to marches by 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, “New World Symphony” by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, and “An Unexpected Journey” (the suite from the movie “The Hobbit”). Festival-goers may someday hear those tunes again and conjure up memories of this weekend.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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