Thirteen-year-old John Jarrett slowly scours the ground in the woods surrounding St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, hoping out loud that he finds a tin can quickly.
Suddenly spotting an empty, rust-covered two-gallon can beside a large tree, he picks it up, anchors it between his knees and beats a quick rat-tat-tat-tat on the bottom with a pair of drumsticks he pulls from his back pocket. As the hollow sound echoes above the leaf-carpeted floor of the woods, Jarrett closes one eye, bites his lower lip in mild consternation, then raps the drum again, nods his head once and issues his evaluation: "It'll do."
Carrying the can back like a game-winning football, Jarrett sprints into the maternity home auditorium to rejoin the 13 fellow members of the Junkyard Band waiting for him on stage. The concert can now begin; John's forgetten drum has been replaced.
The lead drummer, Willie Gaston, 12, is seated on a stack of plastic, milk crates behind a drum set consisting of large plastic buckets which once contained industrial detergents. His cymbals, so worn they look like a record warped around the edges from too much heat, stand to his left, and at his feet sits a heavy cardboard bass drum.
Other band members stand to either side of Gaston, making final adjustments to their junk instruments. The band leader, Steve Herrion, 14, gives a banged-up drumstick to one of the group's five percussionists in exchange for a broken broomstick. Derrick Ingram, 9, toots on his plastic toy horn as Kenneth Robin, 12, sets up a group of old rubber cones, previously used by street construction workers to mark off work sites, as stands for kettledrums taped together in pairs.
Finally, the band manager, Derek McCrae, 19, who stands backstage, holds up his right index finger, signaling the members to stop ajusting their instruments and start playing.
"Show time. Show time," Herrion yells. And the Junkyard Band begins to play a fast funk-rock tune, which begins with a drum solo by the short, chubby Gaston: A-doomp . . . bop! Doomp-bop. A-doom . . . Bop! Doomp-hop. Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-doomp . . . bop! Doom-bop. A-doom . . . bop! Doom-bop.
Then the rest of the band falls in behind Gaston's lead. Herrion pounds a steady, syncopated beat on his cowbell, and chants, "Make it real funky now, make it real funky." The other percussionists and horn players keep time. After a couple of those "real funky" tunes, the Junkyard musicians slow down the beat to introduce themselves to the audience of young unwed mothers and their children.
Herrion calls out the nicknames of the band members, then each performs a short solo, executes a comical move-and-grove motion and freezes for a few beats before continuing to play. Their antics tickle the crowd into loud laughter and applause.
By extracting music from crude instruments and displaying seemingly natural showmanship before hundreds of people, the Junkyard Band has become a well-known crowd-pleaser throughout the Washington metropolitcan area. The band, whose members fall from the Barry Farms Public Housing Development in Anacostia, has been on national and local television programs and also performed at dozens of D.C. recreation centers, the Washington Coliseum, the National Geographic Society and half-time shows.
After attending a concert by a local funk-rock band last August, the 14 musicians, all male and between 9 and 15 years of age, returned to the Barry Farms Recreation Center playground and began creating their own funk by beating on soda bottles, tin cans, picnic benches and whatever else they could find. They sound pretty good to Freddie Bethel, the recreation center director, who quite appropriately christened the youngsters "The Junkyard Band."
McCrae, a neighborhood resident, music lover and former member of the Ballou High School Marching Band, also enjoyed the reggae-like, funky beat that the youngsters played. So he decided to organize them into a band and become their manager. McCrae and his assistant, 21-year-old Mike Kelley, hold rehearsals for the band, teach new songs and schedule programs.
Soon after the band organized, McCrae encouraged band members who had not already started taking music lessons or become members of their school bands to do so. Band members attend Douglass and Kramer Junior High schools and Moten and Birney elementary schools, all in Southeast.
All the miniature funk-rock stars, generally described as good students by those who teach and work with them, want to attend college. Their aspirations are varied -- five aim to become professional musicians, five dream of playing professional sports, two plan to be architects, one wants to be a tractor-trailer driver and another wants to be an artist.
McCrae, a Barry Farms native and Ballou graduate, says his "little guys" symobolize the wealth of neglected artistic and intellectual talent dormant in Washington's many public housing communities.
Working in an animal hospital while he earns money to attend Howard University as a music major next year, McCrae exhorts Junkyward Band members to uphold high scholastic and ehtical standards.
"When you look at the Junkyard Band perform," he says, "you don't just see little kids banging on junk. You see young black people struggling to express themselves with whatever they can lay their hands on. These little guys are lucky. People encouraged them to create music out of junk. Nobody looked down at them."
A "bucket player" for the Junkyard Band, Tony Leonard, 12, says his band has big plans for the summer. "We're trying to raise some money so we can buy some real instruments. We want to go on tour to all the amusements parks (throughout the country),"
But their plans don't stop with this summer. Leonard and the other Junkyard musicians are sure that their talent and luck will make them rich and famous in the years to come. "We're all shooting for the top," he says, smiling. "And we're going to make it."