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‘One of the best kept secrets of Sacramento’: Young drum corps will represent region on nationwide tour

Watch the Sacramento Mandarins perform their 2019 show ‘subTerra’

The Sacramento Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps performed at Monterey Trail High School on July 5, 2019.
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The Sacramento Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps performed at Monterey Trail High School on July 5, 2019.

Wake up. Eat. Rehearse. Eat. Rehearse. Eat. Rehearse. Eat. Sleep. Repeat for the summer.

Since Memorial Day weekend, the 154 members of the Sacramento Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps have practiced 12 hours a day, every day for 5 weeks. They’ve been on the road for nearly 2 months, driving to competitions all around the country with an entourage of around 50 staff and volunteers that feed them and keep them healthy.

The Mandarins are a group of 16- to 21-year-olds who spend their summers dancing, marching and playing instruments in one of the best drum corps in the world. In 2018, the team was a Drum Corps International World Class Finalist, placing them in the top 10 of all drum and bugle corps worldwide.

On Friday evening, they participated in their seventh competition this season at Monterey Trail High School, placing first in the competition. It was their last home show before they had to depart at midnight for a nationwide tour that will culminate with the DCI World Championships in Indiana, Corps Director JW Koester said.

The Mandarins are “one of the best kept secrets of Sacramento,” said Santi Sabado, 31, who marched in the Mandarins for four years and is now a board member.

This year’s show is called “subTerra” and tells the story of an underground tribe. It started with ominous music and a strong drum beat, with percussionists carrying hand drums while dancers leaped behind them. But in this group, everyone dances — setting instruments on the ground, the performers somersaulted and jumped with choreographed precision. Props were thrown 15 feet in the air and caught without missing a beat.

Then, a hooded figure entered the tribe, and the show became a game of cat and mouse. The figure ran through the group, tantalizingly out of reach. At one point, a dancer climbed up a tower adorned with skulls and fell backwards, attached with a bungee cord. The show had a strong narrative arc — it was clear that this figure did not belong, and in the end, they were killed in a frenzied finale.

Every second of the 12-minute performance was choreographed down to the step. It’s a process that began in September of the previous year under Ike Jackson, the program director for the Mandarins, who worked with designers and artists to make it all happen.

“If an intruder comes into your family, you have to do everything to protect it,” Jackson said, describing the essence of the show. “We really get rid of that unwanted entity through the production.”

Jackson said part of his inspiration came from the ancient underground cities and tunnels discovered in Europe as well as the isolated indigenous tribes on Indian islands, one of which killed an American citizen that tried to make contact with them in 2018, The Bee reported.

The Mandarins has a diverse group of students from all around the country and even Japan, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada. This year, they selected 154 members after auditioning nearly 700 people, according to Koester. But 70 percent of the corps are still from California, Koester said, and many are local.

Jane Hammon, 21, a Cosumnes Oaks High grad who attends Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said she initially wasn’t even planning on auditioning. She joined the Mandarins the summer after her sophomore year and has done it every year since, playing the euphonium.

“A lot of my life-long friendships I feel like have come from here,” Hammon said. “I get tan, I get super fit, and I live on a bus, what’s better than that?”

The rehearsal and competition schedule is very demanding, but performing in front of tens of thousands of people at the DCI World Championships last year was a defining experience for Ivan Madrigal, 20, who plays the trumpet and attends Sacramento City College.

“It’s tiring ... but it’s very rewarding, especially performing for people and seeing the reaction after the performance or during the performance,” Madrigal said. “It makes all the hard work pay off.”

The Mandarins were formed in 1963 as the “Ye Wah Drum and Lyras Corps,” as a group created especially for the Sacramento Chinese community, President and CEO Jim Tabuchi said.

More than 55 years later, the Mandarins continue to be active throughout the Sacramento area. They run a music academy at Sac State, elementary school band programs, and the official drum line for the Sacramento Kings.

Much of the expansion happened when Tabuchi became CEO in 2013.

“My question always was, if we have such a great organization, why are we only applying that to 60 or 100 people? Let’s expand our reach, let’s bring more of the Mandarins to more kids in the area,” he said.

As the Mandarins grow, Tabuchi said that their Chinese roots continue to have a big influence on how the organization is run.

“It’s all based on respect,” he said. “Our number one value within the Mandarins has continued to be all about respect.”

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Jaimie Ding, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee with an interest in politics and international relations. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.

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