Tiki head symbolic of new Marching Wildcats era

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jasper High School sophomore Quinn Gunderson carries Lil Keke the Tiki home after band practice in Jasper on Wednesday. Quinn was chosen as the caretaker for Keke at band camp over the summer and brings Keke to and from band practices three days a week. "He's more symbolic of the fact that you can have fun [in band]," Quinn said.


JASPER — Quinn Gunderson remembers the day he was chosen.

In an almost tribal selection ceremony, the tiki head moved from member to member of the Jasper Marching Wildcats’ brass section. One by one, he’d pass the teenage performers during the ritual, silently judging them, looking for the lucky one who would guard and protect him for years to come.

Quinn, who is a sophomore mellophone player, waited at the end of the tiki’s march. Assistant Band Director Pat Keeley guided the head through a circle of the section’s students. When he walked in front of Quinn, the 2-foot-tall head stopped, its plastic yellow eyes staring intently into Quinn’s.

Lil Keke the Tiki had found his keeper.

In a year of new beginnings, the story of this wacky — and, wait for it, somehow practical — tiki head is symbolic of the start of a fresh time at Jasper High School. On the performance field, that renaissance has been marked by free-flowing ideas and a non-traditional marching style.

Off of it, it’s been largely influenced by a tiki head that, in some goofy way, has united the 130-member ensemble.

“In a way, it’s almost like ... how in poetry, there is symbolism,” Quinn said. “He is symbolism of a new era, a new age.”

Jasper High School sophomores Quinn Gunderson, left, and Jackson Clark hold Lil Keke the Tiki after band practice at the school in Jasper on Wednesday. Quinn was chosen as the caretaker for Keke at band camp over the summer and brings Keke to and from band practices three days a week.

Quinn later added: “It might not have anything to do with our show, but it has everything to do with our show in what it stands for.”

Lil Keke the Tiki has become a celebrity of sorts within the band. He — not “it” — joined the ensemble as a useful tool, and has since become a good-luck charm of sorts that helps the kids shake off nerves before their contests and bonds them together.

“Band’s kind of unique compared to a lot of activities,” said Director Chad Gayso, who is in his first year of leading the perennially great Jasper program. “Just because they spend time together like all year.”

He later added: “There’s so much time, I think it’s good for them to have something fun like that (the tiki) to kind of relax and be able to joke about and have fun with. Just to kind of help them come together and build those friendships that they have.”

Lil Keke the Tiki — a name coined by sophomore baritone player Jackson Clark — originally served as a landmark for the band’s brass section. Keeley purchased him from Home Depot, and the head sat with Gayso at the top of a director’s lift at practice. The kids would point their instruments at him during rehearsals to get in the habit of directing their horns up into the air at the center of their performance field.

But as the kids improved, Keke’s usage as a tool diminished. He’s now regarded as a larger-than-life being, a bringer of good fortune and an asset that must be protected at all costs.

The colorful hunk of plastic has his own Instagram page, and any time the brand practices or performs at a contest, Keke is near.

Jasper High School sophomore Quinn Gunderson does homework as Lil Keke the Tiki sits on his table at home in Jasper on Wednesday.

They want him to be. If jokingly, it’s believed that the band plays better when their lucky friend is close by.

“Basically, he is like the protector of not only the brass, but all of the band,” Quinn explained. “He watches over us from the lift and makes sure everything is OK.”

When Keke is really proud of the Marching Wildcats, his eyes and mouth glow a bright yellow. Quinn had a hunch he would be the tiki’s chosen caretaker, and while he sees the humor in constantly looking after an inanimate object, they’re practically attached at the hip any time Lil Keke comes out.

When he’s not presiding over band activities, the roughly 15-pound tiki head can usually be found on either the dining room table at Quinn’s Jasper home or sitting at the foot of Quinn’s bed.

“And he’ll watch me when I do homework or something like that,” Quinn said with a laugh. Once a novelty and an object of mystique and allure at Jasper practices, the head has now become a normal part of life for the performers.

From an Indiana State School Music Association rating perspective, the band is thriving under Gayso’s leadership. Its “Create Dream Inspire” show utilizes non-traditional body movements — dances, in some ways — to generate a theatrical appearance.

Jasper netted a gold rating at the ISSMA Scholastic Class Invitational earlier this month, excelled through the Open Class B regional contest two weeks ago, and will perform at a semistate competition on Saturday. Jasper will take the field at Pike High School in Indianapolis at 4:45 p.m. with a trip to the state finals on the line.

The Marching Wildcats have qualified for that championship contest for 29 consecutive years. Like every band director competing on Saturday, Gayso — who won the Open Class D state championship with Forest Park last season — wants to get back to the finals. But his main goal is for the kids to continue to focus on getting better.

No matter what happens, a certain tiki head will watch over them always.

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com