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Tooting their own horns

For decades, this drum and bugle corps has marched to the beat of tradition and family

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By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / January 8, 2011

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HAVERHILL — You might have seen them in Manchester, N.H., on Saint Patrick’s Day, on parade at the Feasts of Saint Anthony or Saint Agrippina in Boston’s North End. Or maybe in Chelmsford on the Fourth of July or Boston on Columbus Day. The members of the Haverhill Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps have gotten around since the group was founded by Italian immigrants here in 1939.

More than 70 years later, everyone in the corps claims with a moral certainty that it is the only remaining Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps in the country. Neither the Sons of Italy in America’s national headquarters in Washington, nor the Belmont-based Grand Lodge of Massachusetts can confirm this. But no matter.

They plan to just keep on playing. You can’t miss them. They wear dark green pants with a red stripe down the side, and white short-sleeved shirts with lapels in red and green. That’s the Italian tri-color. Each wears a visored hat that sports a red plume. The corps also boasts a five-person color guard and a drill team of eight women.

When you’re talking the Haverhill Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps, you’re really talking Iannalfo and LoConte. These two families, four and three generations deep respectively, have been the backbone of the outfit since it started.

Stephen Iannalfo, 49, is the drum major. His older brother Richard was also a drum major. His grandfather and father played in the corps, as do Stephen’s four children. The two youngest hold the banner during parades. Iannalfo’s sister Debbie drives the equipment van which band members follow to their events.

“If I go the wrong way, they all go the wrong way,’’ she said, decked out for the band’s annual Christmas party held at DiBurro’s, a Haverhill function facility that has been in the DiBurro family for five generations.

The LoConte family is also well represented over three generations. There are scads of them, starting with paterfamilias Carmine, 75, now retired, who played the base bugle in the band from the time he joined — the day he got out of elementary school — until 1992. His son John plays bugle. Another son David plays the drums and has two young daughters who also help hold the banner during parades. Joseph LoConte, 26, has been in the band for 14 years, his brother Anthony, 19, for nine.

It never occurred to any of them not to join. The corps provides a strong bond among generations that is rare these days and is also a source of tremendous pride for the members. They take it seriously and practice here every Monday evening at the Victor Emanuel Lodge in a season that runs from March through early December. As a result, they march with gusto and precision, and they don’t march for peanuts.

“We generally don’t leave here for anything less than $10,000,’’ says Iannalfo, a Haverhill police officer. None of the band members gets a cent for performing — all the money goes toward new instruments, uniforms, dry cleaning, and travel expenses.

Notwithstanding its Italian roots, the band has always played American patriotic songs, says LoConte, such as “America the Beautiful’’ and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.’’ and, of course, the national anthem. But it mixes in Italian songs, as well, such as “March of the Bersaglieri.’’ (The Bersaglieri are a unit in the Italian Army with a celebrated history.) Marching in Orleans on Cape Cod five days after 9/11, the corps played 27 patriotic songs, including “The Star Spangled Banner’’ seven times, according to Frank Quintiliani, 77, a tailor and longtime drummer.

As older members leave, the corps keeps reinventing itself. “New people come in all the time,’’ says Peter Picone, who trains the bugle section. Picone, by the way, is the uncle of Richard Picone, who is the current president of the lodge. Iannalfo adds there are now members from Lawrence, Methuen, Georgetown, Malden, Exeter, N.H., and other towns.

There’s a lot of history here. Tony Santoro, 69, who hails from Campobasso in Italy’s Abruzzi region, arrived here in 1960 and joined the corps a year later. He has played the bugle ever since.

“I was off the boat and needed something to do,’’ says Santoro, a retired mason. “Italians are musical. It’s our heritage. You can’t get it out of us. When I got here, they gave me a bugle. I’d never played one.’’ (Santoro is one of the few members who speaks fluent Italian, in his case with an Abruzzese accent.)

The corps is particularly proud of its drumming. “We’re an anachronism when it comes to our drum beat,’’ says Quintiliani with pride. “It’s a military beat for marching. It’s like the colonials.’’

Quintiliani began drumming on chairs in his family’s kitchen as a youngster in Italy. He never stopped with the sticks, and drummed in the French city of Strasbourg after his father moved the family there in the ’30s in search of work as a tailor. Frank played in a Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps there, then a German youth band, followed by a French YMCA band. “It wasn’t the Nazis, but you better do it or die,’’ he recalls about membership in the German outfit before breaking into cackles. Quintiliani was later drafted into the army, where he drummed in a drum and bugle corps. He still plays.

The party was, as usual, a doozy — lots of laughter, loud talk, and dancing. And, of course, food. We’re talking minestrone, penne and sausage, antipasto, veal marsala — it went on. “Those guys eat like crazy,’’ says David DiBurro. A DJ played such old Italian standards as “Eh, Cumpari,’’ made famous by Julius LaRosa in the early ’50s.

But you couldn’t help noticing the average age of the assembled group. White hair ruled the room. There were youngsters sure, grandchildren of older band members. But missing was that middle generation, people in their 30s and 40s. (The group’s regular complement comprises 12 drummers and 20 bugles, mostly male, but turnout can range from 15 to 50, depending on events.)

Contrary to what Picone says, LoConte concedes it’s increasingly hard to attract new members to an old tradition, especially when they have so many high-tech distractions. Though he’s always delighted to see fresh faces who come from other towns to play, he adds, “Families have been the feeders to the corps.

“The band means family,’’ he says. “It means tradition. You don’t know you’re part of it until you reflect on it.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story about the Haverhill Sons of Italy Drum and Bugle Corps gave an incorrect figure for the least amount of money the band will generally accept for playing a concert. The correct amount is $1,000.