For the past four years, activist street bands from around the country and beyond have descended on Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, for an October weekend of free brass and drum music. Its main events are
(1) a Saturday day-long, multi-venue line-up of more than two dozen bands, playing free, family-friendly shows all around Davis Square,
(2) a Sunday parade down Massachusetts Avenue featuring both bands and non-musical performances by community groups, and
(3) a Sunday night blow-out concert featuring short sets by all participating bands.
The HONK! Festival is a celebration of our collective efforts to reclaim public spaces with loud, joyful music and spectacle, and to inspire and embolden our audiences in support of progressive causes in our communities.
Second Line Origins
The HONK! Festival idea and initiative emerged from the aspirations and friendship of the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, which itself was born from an ad-hoc collaboration with Bread & Puppet Theater for Boston’s first Iraq War protest in 2003. Both the band’s and the festival’s mission are implicit in the band’s name.
Second Line: Inspired by the NOLA (New Orleans) tradition, we see ourselves as ordinary neighbors and citizens who want to have fun doing good, by playing and dancing and showing off in the streets together for a good cause. We always want to look and sound our best, but we are passionate amateurs rather than paid professionals, seeking to include a diverse membership with a broad range of musical and cultural experience.
Social Aid: We want our band and our music to embody the same progressive social values we support in our neighborhood communities and formal institutions: justice and equality, democracy and sustainability, diversity and free expression, love and peace. We think the best way to achieve these values is to live them, and work hard to build trust, overcome class and cultural boundaries, and promote mutual respect and understanding from the bottom up, in our local towns and communities. And we think that reclaiming public space by playing fun music for a worthy cause is one of the best ways to improve the quality of community life. Our band’s motto is, “We aim to please if the cause is true and the time is right.”
Pleasure Society: Our music is not intended to be staged, purchased, commodified, or mediated beyond its spontaneous pleasure and impact in real time, for a flesh-and-blood audience. We are playing together because playing together sets us free. It does this precisely because we are not seeking any fame or fortune or other return beyond the moments we create together on the street with our fellow travelers. We are not seeking merely to entertain our audience; we are inviting them to join our party and our cause, wherever and whatever it may be at that moment. We want them to feel our contagious liberation through self-expression, and be inspired to imagine a world without war, famine, hatred, greed, ignorance, oppression, and fundamentalism. And here’s the best part: nine times out of ten, it works. Usually kids first, then most everyone else, initially stare in wonder and disbelief, then start wiggling their hips or swaying in time, sporting big grins and unable to find a reason they shouldn’t stick around for a little while.
Brass Band: Big brass bands are mobile, loud, and completely conspicuous, unable to faithfully recreate most other genres of music, but uniquely able to appropriate all of them in an idiosyncratic fashion that can be transformative for performers and audiences alike. Bands like ours are reclaiming the American town-band tradition, but also advancing contemporary social movements on their own terms, using any variety of repertoire from other popular cultures and traditions around the world. We see the brass band tradition—and especially the rich and varied history of indigenous brass bands engendered by colonialism’s march across the globe—as a recipe for living and playing together.
Getting a dozen or more busy, everyday people out on the street—in broad daylight, each with a hunk of brass or a set of drums, dressed and eager to make a spontaneous spectacle—is no small feat. On top of all the scheduling and logistical coordination, there are so many collective decisions to be made: Who can be in the band, and why? What music shall we play, which gigs should we seek and which causes should we support? Do we ever charge a fee, and if so, how much? What should we call ourselves and what should we wear? Where should we rehearse, how should we stand in formation, who should lead the parade? Our band has only seldom agreed on any of these all important choices, and we didn’t have a supreme leader or a clear mission statement or set of bylaws to negotiate all these decisions. Conflicts and disagreements arise frequently, and like any other band, ours has endured difficult times and recurring growing pains. What has kept us together despite it all is that we have come to trust in each other’s ability to reach consensus when we must, and to keep our focus on the fun we have and the good we accomplish together. As long as those moments on the street remain fun and fulfilling, we’ll do our very best to get along, hear each other out, delegate tasks and reach sometimes difficult decisions to keep us playing in the streets.
From Band to Festival
Early in 2006, after learning online and by word of mouth about a few other street bands that had formed with similar goals and motivations, we had the crazy idea of bringing them together for a day or two of free outdoor music in our home town. Since the original core group of organizers had already established a thriving collective artistic relationship in the context of playing together in the band, we pursued this crazy idea with the same resolve, keeping faith that whatever else happened, it would be fun and fulfilling to try. We knew right away that our festival would need to be organized around the same values and principles as our band (and as most of the bands we hoped would come). That existing basis of trust and mutual respect gave us the collective confidence to take the plunge, formulate plans, delegate work, divide up city, business, media, and volunteer outreach, and make initial offers and promises to visiting bands.
Early on, we more or less agreed on several organizing principles and themes for our festival:
Our primary events are to be free, outdoors, for family-friendly audiences. We don’t want formal stages, extensive amplification or ubiquitous commercial vendors. With the parade in particular, and the festival in general, we have tried to provide as little structure as possible, and allow performers broad latitude to perform as they like. The idea is to provide just enough structure to avoid chaos, but not so much as to stifle creativity and spontaneity among musicians and bands.
Davis Square has proven to be a very fortuitous place for our celebration, and we are reminded every year how HONK! benefits from its geography and culture. Home to many successful independent businesses, with a well-developed arts community and busker-friendly street life, it is also an easily accessible transportation hub on the border between Somerville and Cambridge/Boston (roadway, subway, bicycle path). Since it is not, in fact, a square at all, it provides a wide variety of discrete urban venues—street corners, parks, parking lots and courtyards of all sizes to fit any size band or style of show. And most importantly, there is strong local support—among residents, businesses, city government and community groups—for the promotion of community arts and outdoor performance, and for the importance of reclaiming and developing open public spaces that are vital to a thriving community life.
We want to keep this a grassroots festival. We are determined not to be bought, seeking our financial and other support primarily from local, independent businesses as well as individual donors and grants organizations. We do not want HONK!—through logos or endorsements—to promote any other values or objectives beyond those of our bands and the activist street band movement. (In fact, we were concerned from the beginning that any visible corporate or partisan sponsorship would turn off many of the bands we wanted to invite.) Without corporate branding or sponsorship, we know that community groups and visiting bands will participate for the best reasons, willing to make the efforts and sacrifices necessary to make the thing work on a volunteer basis with a shoe-string budget.
Each of us has our own network of friends and neighbors, and (especially in the first couple of years), we banked on our personal credibility and long-standing relationships with others to move HONK! along. Our festival wouldn’t be possible without this extended network of enlightened business owners, responsive city officials, generous arts benefactors and supportive community organizers. With their help, our festival has become an act of community bridge-building, as we share and negotiate our crazy vision with a most diverse set of stakeholders: city officials and police, transportation authorities, local businesses and business associations, community and arts organizations, media representatives, theater groups and performance troupes, students, parents, residents, volunteers, and of course, all the visiting bands.
We have always strived for inclusive and diverse participation in our festival, and we’ve also frequently asked ourselves what all these very different bands have in common. Idiosyncratic by nature, with a wonderful diversity in their sound and aesthetic, each band has also arrived at its own solutions to problems of collective action and consensus. Some have leaders and some don’t. Some will play for money in order to support other free gigs; others never accept payment. Some are self-consciously political and radical, some others don’t describe themselves that way at all. What’s common to them all is that they ask these questions and forge their own answers, and see that effort as being an integral part of the band’s purpose and reward. And most would agree that the mutual trust and respect that results from that ongoing collective problem-solving reflects itself in a band’s transformative performance together on the street, time and time again.
Whatever differences the bands share, we have always tried to be fair and equitable in meeting their different needs. We know that a youth jazz band from the Lower Seventh Ward of New Orleans faces different financial and other obstacles than a community marching band from nearby Portsmouth or even faraway Italy, and we continue to make collective decisions about how to divide up our resources and money to meet those differing needs. We have provided food and housing for all musicians for the duration of the festival, and have usually promised some travel reimbursement as well, always mindful that we not overextend our community’s resources or good will. Since our revenues and expenses take shape in real time, with all kinds of uncertainty, we have had to trust one another’s collective judgment on how best to spend our money and manage risk.
Growth and Development
From the very first year, we have considered the benefits and consequences of growth, in both the size and scope of our festival. Until recently, we didn’t choose bands, they “chose” us: the festival was essentially open to any non-professional band willing and interested in coming to play for free, and in our first couple of years we weren’t forced to reject any band that wanted to participate. More recently, however, we have started to turn bands away, either because of our limited resources, or because we don’t think some bands are appropriate for our festival. How do we balance our commitment to our original principles and our growing network of fellow bands, while also expanding and diversifying our musical range and community outreach, all the while trying to make the most of our limited resources and our few short days together? So far, we have had many long discussions, but no hard-and-fast rules about making any of these determinations.
Our committee itself has also grown substantially over the years, bringing new voices and additional resources to our project. Managing a larger group has certainly provided new challenges—both in coordinating our work and in reaching consensus—but our newer members’ commitment to our cause is beyond reproach, and there is no doubt our festival has benefited enormously from their ideas and efforts. What’s more, bringing new friends to the table has forced us to clarify (and sometimes re-examine) our ideas about what HONK! is, what makes it unique and special, and how we can expand our festival’s horizons while staying true to our original principles and vision.
Our second year, for example, we added the very popular parade allowing us to invite a variety of community groups (and two city mayors) to create their own traveling spectacle. In the second and third year we included an alliance with Tufts University and the Somerville Public Schools for band and school workshops as well as formal symposia. Most recently, we added several Friday shows in underserved communities around greater Boston, pairing up visiting bands with local community organizations like the Boys & Girls Club. And for the first time, we hosted our biggest (and longest) Sunday night all-band line-up at Davis Square’s renowned Somerville Theatre. Some of our innovations have been more successful than others, and we continue to learn all we can through feedback from our community and from participating musicians. In planning subsequent festivals, we try to strike a balance between relying on what has worked so well before and daring to try something new and possibly better.
Most promising of all has been the geographic spread of our celebration to other cities, including a de facto post-HONK! East Coast tour through Providence (PRONK!), Western Massachusetts (Brass Mayhem), Brooklyn and New York City (BONK!) as well as brass-band convergences in Seattle (Honk West), Montreal (Congrès de l’insurrection Culturelle) and various actions and events elsewhere around the country (Burning Man, World Social Forum, RNC protests, etc.) To our delight, with ample encouragement but little or no formal input from our group, activist musicians in each of these communities have organized their own version of our festival, doing the hard work to host bands, raise funds, find venues, and negotiate with local stakeholders. As we would hope and expect, these honks have been different from ours, a function of their local organizers’ vision and resources. Through our example, and with the spread of the movement, it’s our hope that other towns and communities will realize what they are missing, come together, and honk their own local way, for a better community and a freer world.
written by Kevin Leppmann
on behalf of the HONK! Committee: John Bell, David Blank-Edelman, Trudi Cohen, Ken Field, Bob Follansbee, Reebee Garofalo, Rob Gregory, Harris Gruman, Susie Husted, Kevin Leppmann, Maury Martin, Dave Morgan, Michael Rome, Lydia Stein and Rand Wilson
Please visit www.honkfest.org and book your travel arrangements to Boston early for a surely fantabulous Honk!Festival 5.