by Matt Corks
The Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble is committed to being an explicitly political and non-hierarchical band, which gives us a common purpose, but also involves constant discussion — almost as much as our goal of being fully bilingual does. We wanted to hear from other bands how they handled these issues, so we organised a workshop on the Sunday afternoon of this year’s Honk! Fest in Boston, inspired by a similar discussion led by the Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO) of San Francisco a few years ago. About 30 people attended (mostly from Baltimore, Brooklyn, Montreal, Vancouver,and Bologna), dividing into four groups to discuss marching bands and public spaces, leadership, marching bands in the community, and using marching bands to show our political views.
Politics and your Band
Mixing music and politics is an old and powerful idea. Talking about this brought up several suggestions, from how to use music to raise money for various causes, to involving the audience by distributing flyers or lyrics. As musicians we often attract the media to an event, which is an excellent way to support a cause, but requires being aware of the potential of a band to displace the main message of the event organisers. Props like banners, costumes, and puppets can help keep the camera’s focus on the reason for the event, and can be organised together with other local groups. It also never hurts for band members to think ahead of time about responses to interview questions.
This was the discussion I participated in, and what struck me most was how unique each band was, even those with similar membership policies and stated goals. For example, the CIE attempts to operate by consensus, which for the most important decisions can be a lengthy process. Because we have an open membership policy and no set list of members, it’s been compared to herding cats. Instead of developing formal policies, we’ve managed mostly by checking in with each other often, which works because we’ve become a close group of friends over the years.
The Carnival Band of Vancouver, on the other hand, employs two paid musical directors who run all practises and rehearsals, and is incorporated as a non-profit run by an elected board of directors who make major decisions. Their group still operates on an open membership policy, though, and in fact their rehearsals in a community centre attract many people who never attend public performances.
Somewhere in between these approaches is the BLO (who weren’t present at the workshop, but sent a description of their policies later by e-mail). They’ve formed a separate organising collective (open to all members) that has taken on much of the planning necessary for the band, leaving others free to simply show up and play without needing to sit through every meeting, should they choose to do so. To join the band, potential members must go through a formal approval process.
A completely different approach is taken by Banda Roncati of Bologna, which has been playing together for over 15 years, and has always been open to new members. As one musician explained to me, the group never has formal meetings about anything other than which events to play at. Everything else
is handled by getting together occasionally for dinners featuring animated discussions and loud disagreements – and by the end, everyone agrees about what to do.
Regardless of how we organise, bands will always encounter negative power dynamics involving race, gender, and class, to name a few. One way to help avoid these is to deliberately share decision-making broadly within the group, since even without a formal hierarchy, leadership tends to happen whether or not it’s intentional, and without conscious effort this can easily result in power imbalances just like those we see around us in society. Most importantly, by giving all members the opportunity to take charge, we also give them the chance to learn how to support others when it’s their turn to be the one responsible. We’re still trying to work out how best to be open and inclusive while still remaining true to our political roots, and still able to make sometimes-difficult decisions.
Some notes from these discussions are available online http://chaoticinsurrectionensemble.org/honk-workshop-2009.
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