The HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands (honkfest.org) is an independent, grassroots, non-commercial weekend festival held each fall in Somerville, Massachusetts. From the nine hours of free performances on Saturday by 350-400 musicians comprising two dozen or so outrageous and unruly marching bands, to the mammoth Sunday parade down Massachusetts Avenue to "reclaim the streets, for horns, bikes, and feet," this is not your average music festival. It is a moving (in both senses of the terra) spectacle of colorful marching bands, gigantic puppets, creative bikers, jugglers, hoopers, flag twirlers, and stilt walkers, interspersed with unions, activist organizations, and community groups, which never fails to move the bodies and put smiles on the faces of the few thousand people who join the fun.
HONK! represents one visible tip of a substantial underground of alternative street bands that encompasses large parts of the globe and dates back decades. The original HONK! Festival in 2006 codified this growing movement, gave it a name for the new millennium, and provided its main point of convergence in the United States. Because of the success of the Somerville festival, HONK! has begun to spread to other locations, including Providence, RI; Brooklyn, NY; Seattle, WA; and Austin, TX.
HONK! bands represent a new incarnation of a time-honored tradition when there were marching brass bands in most every town and hamlet in the land. The deep history of HONK!, however, extends much further back in time and parallels the tortured historical role of military brass and drums in colonial conquest and religious conversion. Indeed, in the period leading up to the twentieth century, it is fair to say that the first exposure to brass band music for most people in the world was probably from an invading colonial army or an evangelizing Christian mission. (1)
The military tradition of brass band music has continued to live on in formations like high school and college marching bands, often deployed in sporting competitions pitting rival teams against one another. Beneath the surface, however, there have long been powerful inversions of these tendencies that are far more subversive and potentially liberating. As empires crumbled, brass instruments began to find their way into indigenous rituals, often in clandestine circumstances. Military and religious ensembles became secularized, giving rise to civilian bands whose members adapted their exacting military training to local popular musics to create new transcultural hybrids. In this way, the tools of subjugation were repurposed in the service of self-expression, community service, and cultural development. "Listen to enough brass band music," says scholar/ journalist Josh Kun, "and you start to hear the history of the world handed back to you in a horn section. Suddenly, Serbia and Romania could be the alternative birthplace of Brazilian frevo; brass flurries from Gypsy bands in Macedonia and Bulgaria could be lost cousins of the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band from India, the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin or any New Orleans jazz troupe." (2)
The processes by which these mostly amateur bands operate are studies in the way street bands are formed and led, how new members are recruited and nurtured, and how musical repertoire is developed, learned, and disseminated. It is my contention that a closer look at these processes can provide an alternative model (or complement) to traditional music education. This paper, then, is an embryonic attempt to articulate the values and techniques that comprise what I call HONK! pedagogy.
To develop this analysis I have made use of an extensive survey conducted by bass drummer, scholar, and HONK! stalwart Michele Hardesty in 2007 (3), I have scanned the relevant literature on the subject (such as it is), and I have conducted hall a dozen in-depth interviews with practitioners who were suggested to me as being among those on the cutting edge of HONK! pedagogy--Sebastian Isler, Charlie Keil, Ron Kelley, Gregg Moore, Marcus Santos, and Rick Saunders. They are identified below and are quoted extensively throughout the essay. This research is neither systematic nor exhaustive (I am aware, for example, that with one exception, the musicians I have interviewed thus far are white men). It is intended to whet the appetite for participatory music-making and point the way to further inquiry and action.
Inclusion: Everyone is a Musician
According to the practitioners I interviewed for this research, as well as the preponderance of responses in Hardesty's survey, HONK! is a movement that values inclusion, mobility, community, creativity, fun, feeling, chaos, anarchy, and spectacle. Interestingly, for most HONK! participants, this mindset is neither an alternative to nor incompatible with discipline, hard work, or high quality musicianship. At the heart of HONK! practice is the notion that culture--and, in particular, music-making--should be part of everyday life (not a series of specialized, regulated events and not simply a commercial enterprise), and an equally powerful sense that anyone can participate. This conception of culture recalls Raymond Williams's seminal distinction between culture "as a standard of excellence" versus culture "as a whole way of life" (4) and, for HONK!, it harkens back to the tradition and operations of village bands of old (and not so old).
During the ten years he spent music directing fan fare bands in the Netherlands, Gregg Moore, who currently leads Northern California's Bandemonium workshops, also worked with traditional Portuguese village bands, which made a deep impression on him. "The application of music to community cohesion was blinding," says Moore. One of the things that these "village bands offer their communities that seems so valuable is the fact of all the various social strata being represented in their ranks. The village doctor would be sitting next to a field worker would be sitting next to a school teacher would be sitting next to the bank manager and on down the line. And all these folks would have a variety of political views and life experience and values ... but they'd all be playing in the band together, presumably opening lines of communication that might otherwise not...