by Becky Leibman
When the question pops up, “How do you start a street band?” there are a million answers. We can give you only one answer: the story of our young band.
Actually, we had the answer before the question even occurred to us. For years, ethnomusicologist Charlie Keil (see the feature article in this issue) had been ranting about the need for “applied ethnomusicology,” exhorting his colleagues to help bring music and movement into our own lives and public spaces. One of his strategies has been to catalyze street bands wherever he travels, and he describes his thoughts in www.128path.org.
Our experience was this: Charlie was swinging through Olympia, Washington about two and a half years ago, so several friends and acquaintances assembled to hear his thoughts. The initial group included two trumpets, an alto sax, a baritone sax, and assorted percussion—maybe about eight folks all together.
Taking the First Steps, Making the First Moves
- Learn three basic grooves—New Orleans, salsa, and samba. Charlie simply tossed out some ideas, without any written music whatsoever: tunes that we recognized (“Just a Closer Walk With Thee, “Down By the Riverside,” etc.), plus some simple riffs. He organized his teaching around three basic grooves—New Orleans, salsa, and samba—offering up the elements of each groove (what the ear needs to hear on the high and low ends of percussion) and simple horn lines that went with them (http://www.borntogroove.com). It was all we needed to get underway.
- Develop a strategy for building focus. Charlie asked us if there was a weekly peace vigil in town. Yes, we told him, every Friday afternoon. “There’s your rehearsal time,” Charlie declared. “Go down there and give ’em what you got.” Equally important to his simple and heartfelt pedagogy is a way to connect with your audience.
How Did We Start Our Street Band?
Weekly peace vigils, 2007: So we did exactly that, starting in February 2007, which in the Pacific Northwest meant lots of rain and, ultimately, as the months passed by, lots of sun too. Playing every week for the peace vigil not only strengthened our chops but provided a weekly moment of catharsis. During the depths of the Bush administration, it was supremely bonding to play “Tequila”—in the rain or sun—and all shout out, at the bridge, “Impeachment!” Serious nourishment for our own mental health.
Honk Fest West 2, 2009: We’re still out there, playing the tunes that will lift and motivate as well as, hopefully, shake some booty. The band has since expanded, combining with another set of folks who share the vision of a political marching band that plays for the public good. The expanded band, influenced and edified by the Honk Fest culture, now numbers about 18 folks. We’re also playing from the printed page as well, with some great arrangements that we’ve obtained from fellow bands or created ourselves, ranging from the Go Go’s to Mingus to Justin Timberlake.
The Band With Many Names
We have played plenty of gigs: a Martin Luther King Day economic justice rally, a protest led by military veterans to stop “stop-loss” practices, a run-walk to fight hunger, local festivals, the half-time show for the local women’s roller derby. Curiously, after two-plus years, we have yet to really settle on a name that we like, and so far have been adopting a new one for every gig.
Truth be told, the band likely would not have gelled were it not for some generous, excellent players who anchor the folks with less experience. We are young and have many bumps to figure out, much to learn from other bands. But, happily, we have something to offer as well. As they say, forward in all directions.
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