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An Oral History: How The Honk Music Fest Began Here And Spread Around The World

New York's Rude Mechanical Orchestra marches in the 2010 Honk Parade in Somerville. (Greg Cook)

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 Updated October 11, 2014, 12:00 am

“A lot of people, I would say a majority of people even, who are big Honk fans just happened onto it.”—Trudi Cohen

The Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands began with the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, a raucous, renegade gang of Somerville horn players who dress all in reds. They had an inkling that there were others like them around the country and put out a call to come play together. A dozen brass and drum bands—hailing from as far away as San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago and Brooklyn—arrived to perform on sidewalks and plazas around Davis Square for the first Honk in 2006.

The next year Honk added a parade from Davis Square to Harvard Square. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone marched at the front—well, at least to the Cambridge line. The largest Honk in 2012 showcased 34 bands with 600 musicians. It attracts some 10,000 revelers.

It’s become an infectious street party as the ninth annual Honk Fest takes place in Somerville this weekend, with bands performing for free from 12:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday around Davis Square and parading from Somerville to Cambridge at noon Sunday and then performing at the Harvard Square Oktoberfest from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday. (Update: See our photos of the 2014 Honk parade here.)

Honk is the rare Boston area cultural invention that’s so successful that it’s been copycatted in New York, Seattle, Providence, Austin, and Detroit. And there are plans to debut Honk festivals in Australia and Brazil in 2015.

How did it begin? What has made it so contagious? In the oral history below, we begin to answer some of these questions.

The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band marches in the 2008 Honk Parade in Somerville. (Greg Cook)

The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band marches in the 2008 Honk Parade in Somerville. (Greg Cook)

“Would you like to get together?”
Trudi Cohen, drummer in the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band in Somerville and one of the co-founders of Honk here: “Our band got started in 2003 doing some anti-war protests with Bread and Puppet [Theater] actually. It was an ad-hoc group of people. Various people knew each other, but we didn’t all know each other. After one march in particular, we thought ‘This is really exciting, why don’t we stick together.’ That was the beginning of our band.”

“About three years later we had this thought that there were probably other bands that had formed similarly with this idea of lending music to the politics of the moment. We started looking around to see who they might be. Hungry March Band had been around for a while. John [Bell, her husband] and I knew them from New York. And, of course, the Bread and Puppet Band was a big part of our inspiration. [The couple has performed with the experimental, political, theater troupe since the 1970s.] Then we found the Brass Liberation Orchestra in Oakland, California. So we just sort of sent out this message: ‘Would you like to get together and have some sort of convergence of activist bands?’ And we got a very positive response. And when the BLO people from California told us they were coming, we said, ‘Oh, we have a festival.’”

“There were 12 bands the first year and it took us completely by surprise how great it was, how much all the musicians who participated enjoyed it and how much the public enjoyed it. We had approached Rob Gregory, who is one of the owners of Redbones [restaurant in Somerville], to just run this idea by him about whether doing it in Davis Square would make sense. You know, he’s a visionary. So he was like, ‘This is perfect. This is exactly what Davis Square needs to preserve its image as a spontaneous, creative place.’ He got Davis Square businesses to back it. So that took us by surprise too because he believed in it more than we did in a way. It was like a combination of this great good will of the musicians who came and having the support of the community and then having it just be a really cool event that gave it its birth.”

The first Honk festival debuted in fall 2006. A dozen bands—hailing from as far away as San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago and Brooklyn—performed around Somerville’s Davis Square.

Cohen: “There had just been at Bread and Puppet [in Glover, Vermont] this ‘Radical Cheese’ gathering of political puppeteers, the puppetistas. I really think that for me and John at least, our roots in this street band culture, which is a big part of our Bread and Puppet experience and also having just, maybe a year or two before that had this experience of being together with puppeteers from around the country, talking about what we do and also showing each other our work, I think that was a lot of the seed of the idea [for Honk]. But it’s really hard to say that because I don’t want to take credit for it. It was really a collective idea. But I know for me personally those were very important influences.”

Somerville as the ideal location
Jason Fialkoff, plays trombone in the Minor Mishap Marching Band and helps organize Honk TX in Austin: “I’m a transportation planner, I’m a bicycle and pedestrian specialist, I’m big on how you can transform public space. To show up in Davis Square and to see how by programming 20 bands in normal everyday spaces like parking lots and squares and parks that an entire town can just completely come to life and have its own pulse. The city just comes to life in a way it never does.”

Reebee Garofalo, plays snare drum in Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band and a Honk organizer since the second Honk: “The mayor loves it. The city has been very supportive. The way Somerville is developing generally, I think the whole atmosphere of Honk fits into the kind of hip reputation that the city as a whole has been getting and cultivating. We are now the coolest place in the world. And I think the Honk Festival plays some role in that reputation.”

“Here [at Davis Square] you have this self-contained area that has all these fabulous nooks and crannies that are available for performance that are about a half a block from each other and they’re still sonically isolated. It’s ideal. A major public transportation hub is right in the middle of the place. You take the Red Line and you come up out of the ground into the middle of a festival. You’ve got a completely supportive business community beginning with Rob Gregory of Redbones mobilizing everybody else to be supportive. And the businesses jumping on board very quickly because they see the payday they get out of doing it. So it’s a really magical place. In traveling to other cities, we’ve learned just how magical it is because it’s hard to duplicate that constellation of variables that we have in the square elsewhere. You won’t find that in Seattle and you won’t find that in the sprawl of Austin. But to their credit they’ve developed in different ways that take advantage of the aspects of their communities in a really good way.”

Cohen: “We had just moved here from New York. When Honk happened and it was so successful and exciting, it really struck me that would be extremely hard to do it in New York. There aren’t neighborhoods that could support the event. Or the infrastructure of the city is so vast that it’s really hard. I know in Austin they’re up against a big city government every time they need a permit for something. And in Detroit, where there’s no money at all, they couldn’t do anything without paying for it. In Somerville and Cambridge, we’re just getting bestowed with municipal services all time. Not only that, in the first years at least, the businesses were all supportive and we were in their community, we were part of it. For me that was really particular to Somerville and really hard to duplicate elsewhere. The fact that the character of the festivals is different in different places is inevitable. … People love their community here, they want it to be known as a welcoming and happy place. So anything that reinforces that it seems like they like it.”

Garofalo: “The Honk festival proceeds as if it’s a normal day in Davis Square that just happens to have 550 musicians and 10,000 participants milling around. We don’t close any streets. We don’t allow any outside vendors. We drive all the business to local businesses. All of the local business say they have their biggest payday of the year on Honk Saturday. So the notion that what we’re promoting here is what a normal day might look like is a statement about reclaiming public space as public and some sort of statement about what sort of sounds and images and activities are acceptable in public. … We don’t use any stages [except for the Harvard Square Oktoberfest stage]. We don’t use any electricity. We don’t use any sound reinforcement at all. So there is virtually no distance between artist and audience. And in fact there are moments when you can’t tell who’s who without the playbook. … It not only lowers cost, it also facilities performance. There is no set up, there are no sound checks. One band marches out of the performance venue while another band is marching in. The one stage that we actually use is the main stage at Oktoberfest in Harvard Square. We’re going to have 28 bands perform on that stage in a four-hour period. You couldn’t do that with electric bands.”

The Pronk festival in Providence. (Jori Ketten)

The Pronk festival in Providence. (Jori Ketten)

A movement that didn’t know it was developing
Garofalo: “We provided a convergence for a movement that was developing and didn’t know it was developing. One of the most striking things about the first couple of Honk festivals is the extent to which the bands didn’t know the others existed. Most of the bands who responded to the call for the first Honk festival thought they were the only band of its kind.”

Cohen: “I don’t think we knew either actually. And many more bands are forming all the time. And there’s a whole hipness to this pseudo marching band genre. There’s Mucca Pazza and MarchForth [Marching Band] that are really exploiting that image professionally. I don’t think we knew that that was going to happen. What Cheer? [Brigade], they came to our first festival as a brand new band. They had no idea that they were going to hit this punk scene by combining street music with I don’t know what. They’re hugely popular. I don’t think we could have anticipated it as a genre. … And maybe it affected the moment too. Not to toot our own horns. By bringing all these people together and saying, yes, we are a thing, maybe that helped strengthen it.”

The Pronk festival parade in Providence. (Dwight Wilkerson/Small Frye Photography)

The Pronk festival parade in Providence. (Dwight Wilkerson/Small Frye Photography)

Honk spreads to New York in 2007 and Providence in 2008
Cohen: “I’ve spent my adult life trying to convince people that they want to see theater. It’s so hard to get support for the theater things I do. Honk is this charmed thing. Everybody wants to support it. Everybody wants to have a piece of it. It’s crazy and a little scary.”

“We can’t get any bigger. We started to get bigger and it was really painful in many, many ways. So last year we did a very drastic cutting back of how many bands we invited and that was super hard to do. And this year we’re holding it at that lower number. I think it’s 28 bands this year. There was no place to put everybody. … A way that it can grow is by having it happen in other places. … To us, it’s a great way to expand without us having to do more.”

Garofalo: “Very quickly the Honk Festival became sort of a mini Honk tour that made stops in Providence and New York. Because a lot of bands flying in fly in through New York, especially foreign bands, providing a mini tour that gets you from here back to New York happened kind of naturally.”

Avi David, bass drummer in the Extraordinary Rendition Band and an organizer of Pronk, the Providence Honk Festival: “The first year it was very small and informal. It was just a handful of bands coming back to Providence after Somerville. And it’s sort of grown to have a little more structure every year.”

Pronk, which takes place on Oct. 13 this year, now has 14 bands, about 10 are bused down from Somerville for performances in India Point Park and a parade. Then four or five bands are bused down for Honk NYC to join some 12 other bands for a festival from Oct. 13 to 18 this year.

David: “I think a big part of it is the spontaneity. Every year I’m blown away by how spontaneous the whole thing feels. It’s a very do-it-yourself festival. People are making crazy instruments, crazy costumes for themselves. It’s a decidedly, intentionally non-corporate festival. You don’t see these massive advertisements on radio and television. I mean, you see the internet stuff and the Kickstarters. But it’s all through grassroots organizing. So it’s not pitched as the Hot 106 or 108 festival of the fall. There’s something very charming about the idea of such a cool and exciting and chaotic and spontaneous festival that just feels like it appears and then it disappears. It’s like if you blink and eye you can miss the whole thing. At the same time, if you’re there, it feels like you’re in the center of the universe.”

The Honk festival in Somerville in 2013. (Greg Cook)

The Honk festival in Somerville in 2013. (Greg Cook)

Activist street bands
David: “The thing that really gets me is it’s not just a normal music-focused festival. It has a very deep tie to social activism and this notion that art should be used to provoke social change, that artists and musicians should be working together and try and use this incredible power as artists and musicians we have to do something positive for society. Not just to bring people together, but highlight the hard work of the local organizations, nonprofits and activists where we all live and support them in their efforts. Playing with ERB for many years, it’s just been this incredible community that we’ve discovered all around the U.S. of people basically doing the same thing that we’re trying to do.”

Cohen: “People don’t actually know what activism is or why this has any activist component at all. It’s a lot of fun and that’s what people are mainly seeing. Should we be doing more to hit them over the heads that these are not just club bands, but they’re bands that have motivating principles? We talk about that: How can we make it more obvious what we’re about? But, you know, fun is a big part of it too. Having fun with people outdoors is a great thing. Just bringing people together is a great thing. So in some ways we can’t worry too much about it. But on the other hand, we’re trying a lot more to make it obvious that this is a different festival than, for example, Honk TX or Crash Detroit or Honk Fest West, that we really want it to be about the activism. So this year we’re doing these direct action things, which is quite an experiment and it’s really exciting.”

Garofalo: “This year we’ve added a day of action which entails six bands going down to Downtown Crossing at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon [yesterday] and targeting half a dozen different low-wage sites in the fight for the $15 minimum wage.”

“There is a way in which just playing in the street is itself a political statement that sort of reclaims public space in a way that is different from the way most people imagine. But often times the music is intentionally political.”

Cohen: “We’re very proud to say that everything is free. The accessibility idea, that it’s for everyone, to me that’s a very exciting component. If we truly believe that street bands can change the world or can be a useful tool for supporting causes and organizations that we believe in, then the value of them is that they can speak to everyone, that they can get those ideas in a free and open way.”

Dead Music Capital Band performs at Honk TX in 2013. (Mike Antares)

Dead Music Capital Band performs at Honk TX in 2013. (Mike Antares)

We say no a lot
Cohen: “The thing about commercialism, that’s really important to us. We really don’t want it to be bought by anybody. Everybody who gives money, if they give $5,000 or if they give $50, they get acknowledged the same way. We don’t have vendors at the festival itself. We don’t want it to be about commerce. We want it to be free and open and it’s about the music exclusively. … We say no a lot. The Harvard Square Business Association felt like they could get support for the parade from Nantucket Nectars. This is quite a number of years ago. It’s a local product, it’s a good product. They weren’t going to have signs, they were just going to have T-shirts and hand out samples. We said no. Then they said, ‘What kind of sponsorship would you accept?’ So we had a meeting about this. And we ended up saying, ‘None.’ We don’t want any. If they want to give us some money we’ll take it and put it in the program. I’m kind of proud of that because I feel that it’s really hard to hold onto that.”

Garofalo: “For the most part, the bands do not receive a fee for performance. To the extent possible, we try to defer travel expenses for as many bands as we can. The question we ask bands is: ‘What would it take to get you here?’ And bands are surprisingly honest about not inflating those figures. They tell us what it would take to get them here and we try and approximate that amount to the extent that we can. I think the bands sort of trust the process because they know that our budget is a zero-sum game. Whatever money we raise goes to them.”

Cohen: “We’ve had some conversations about whether we want to protect it and copyright the word or whatever because we don’t want the Pepsi Cola Honk Festival happen somewhere. But we never really went anywhere with it.”

Garofalo: “It’s completely noncommercial. … I think that has given us a certain leeway to produce the kind of festival that we would really like to see. We’re not beholden to any commercial interests. I think there are very few corporations that would sign on to the action we have planned for this Friday [yesterday now]. No one monitors the political messaging that happens during the political parade down Massachusetts Avenue. Were there commercial interests involved, I think that might be different. So we’re very happy and very steadfast about maintaining that freedom.”

Chicago's Environmental Encroachment band, in their bunny costumes, plays at Honk Fest West in Seattle in 2011. (Mike Antares)

Chicago’s Environmental Encroachment band, in their bunny costumes, plays at Honk Fest West in Seattle in 2011. (Mike Antares)

Honk Fest West debuts in Seattle in 2008, followed by Honk TX in 2011
Garofalo: “After the second year, we were approached by Seattle in a formal way with them asking whether we would give blessing to their using the Honk name and of course we did. The year after that we were approached by Texas with the same notion that they wanted to do a festival sort of patterned after the one we do here. That to us was a sort of very conscious strategy decision for how you grow the festival and how you grow the movement.”

Jason Fialkoff, plays trombone in the Minor Mishap Marching Band and helps organize Honk TX in Austin: “In the beginning of 2009, this band from Chicago, Environmental Encroachment, came down to Austin and approached the Minor Mishap Marching Band, which is lead by Datri Bean. They approached Datri and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this thing with you guys.’”

“I think they came down on a whim. People have different ideas of what Honk is. And the Environmental Encroachment folks were pretty much like, ‘We’re coming down to Austin and we’re doing a Honk.’ We had no idea what they were talking about. So Datri just put together a parade featuring them, us and a small piece of the Austin Samba School.”

“Datri threw together this parade and these EE bunnies were like, ‘You have to go to Honk in Somerville. You have to see what it’s about.’ We didn’t even know if we were appropriate, but we signed up. Because they were saying activist bands, and we’re not an activist band. But we went, the Minor Mishap Band Went to Somerville, and it was life changing. We went to Seattle shortly thereafter and it was life-changing.”

“When we got back to Austin a few of us sat around and we’re like, ‘Hey, we should bring this Honk to Austin.’ … We’ve all been transformed by this experience and we really feel that it’s something we want to bring to our city.”

Cohen: “Seattle did ask us and Austin did too. And we said, ‘What have we got to lose? Go ahead.’ I remember we had a meeting with the Austin folks before they did their first one and they were sort of apologetic and said, ‘What if we don’t have the same mission as you do, is that still going to be OK?’ And we talked about it and we said, ‘Well, you know what, it’s fine.’ And so I don’t think we care that much. We know them. They know what we think Honk is. So I don’t think they would do something totally different. They had some potential beer sponsor that we were kind of wary of. … But I think it didn’t materialize and ultimately so what. It doesn’t really affect what we do. Or so far it doesn’t.”

Garofalo: “To date we haven’t put any restrictions on anybody’s festival. In fact, Seattle and Texas have developed in ways that are quite different than what we do. Seattle is more club-based, it’s more of a commercial enterprise.”

Mike Antares, plays cymbals for Chaotic Noise Marching Corps. in Seattle and has helped organize Honk TX and Honk Fest West: “I first saw Honk at Honk Fest West in Seattle in April of 2010. I wasn’t a musician. I actually went out as a photographer and as a friend to some people in Minor Mishap Marching Band out of Austin. A friend of somebody in the band was who told me about Honk. She just said, ‘Well, if you really like these guys, and you like taking pictures of them, then I think you should go check out this festival in Seattle because there’s lots of them.’ I went and it truly blew me away. I don’t like to use too many trite phrases to describe it, but it was life changing, it was direction altering. It gave me a new perspective on life. Because I had never known such a thing existed. I had no real formal musical background. I didn’t play any instruments. So this is just me as a spectator just being blown away.”

“When I came back to Austin, some of the folks in Minor Mishap had begun having a conversation of can we bring this festival which is in Boston—and I had heard of the one in Boston, but I’d never been—can we bring this festival that’s in Seattle and in Boston here to Austin. I spoke up early and I said, ‘Look, I want to be involved from the start. I want to be part of this.’ So I was among the co-founders. It got started in June [2010]. We had a kickoff meeting. That started the overall planning process. Later that summer, I tried to audition for Minor Mishap Marching Band. I went to the band leader Datri and said, ‘I don’t play anything, but I really want to be in your band. Do you need a photographer.’ She said, ‘Well, no, we don’t’ really do that. But if you learn an instrument, you’re welcome to come audition and play and we’ll see if it’s a good fit.’ So for lack of anything better, I learned to play the [Egyptian] hand drum, because I was inspired by one of the folks in the band. … So that was my start with Minor Mishap. After a couple months I was performing with them.”

“Honk just made me realize that I had a connection to music. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I did, I didn’t think about it period. So it really inspired that in me, this connection to music and this desire to be around it more and to experience it in a different way. It was all these people playing instruments that I hadn’t seen outside of a concert hall. Or instruments that I hadn’t thought about since high school or college. And they’re playing them just out in the streets for free, just bringing this joyful noise to people, getting them to dance and let go of whatever the cares of the moment are. It was uncanny. It just shifted my perspective to want to understand it and be a part of it. And it seemed so accepting and so communal. And that’s borne out.”

Honk TX in 2013. (Mike Antares)

Honk TX in 2013. (Mike Antares)

Honk TX debuted in Austin in March 2011 with more than 20 bands playing for three days, including a parade.

Fialkoff: “The organizers from Somerville came down and nobody quite knew what to expect. We didn’t quite know what to expect. There was this outpouring of support from this network of bands that Honk has helped connect. Everybody wanted to come to Austin because so many people had never been. They wanted to see what it was all about. … Thousands of people showed up. When you’re throwing together brand new for a city and your marketing budget is tiny and thousands of people show up on three consecutive days for an event that they’ve never heard of. And to see how people enjoyed it. Folks would show up in the park and they would be like, ‘I think I know what I’m going to see.’ And people dancing with the bands. The following fall a new brass band just popped up. And we’ve seen a new band pop up every year that we’ve put on a Honk.”

Antares: “When we co-founded Honk TX, we had a long discussion about what our collective vision was. We wanted to understand not just our motivations, but what were we going to build. Pretty early on it became a point of observation and even contention that we weren’t interested in doing a festival of activist street bands because half of the people on the committee just that wasn’t their flavor. And it’s Texas, it’s more conservative, even if it’s Austin, Texas. We felt that it might draw the wrong kind of attention, where we say we’re doing this activism locally. The Northeast has this longstanding, proud tradition of community activisms and Texas doesn’t really have that tradition, not in the same way. Of course it exists. We realized that our strength is if it’s not the activism portion of community activism, then it’s the community portion of bringing people together and crossing the divides that might exist. And embracing the communities around our city. We really focused on that. We called it the festival of community street bands.”

Fialkoff: “I think people really like to take advantage of their parks and neighborhoods. People like that stuff, it’s just that we never put things on in these spaces that have typically been community spaces. So when you use community spaces for their actual purpose people come out and they use those spaces. It’s infectious in a way. There’s an enthusiasm to the performers. Everyone is looking for authenticism now and what is real, and when you see these musicians, who often come to perform at great expense, in some sort of collectivized, but homemade uniforms and costumes and there are professionals playing along side people who haven’t played their horn since high school, there’s just this openness that draws people in.”

“There’s something interactive about Honk that I haven’t experienced at any other festival—because there are no stages, because there’s no amplification, because the musicians are often interacting with the crowd and the lines are blurred and we take down that fourth wall. [A music festival is] typically an event were you consume, all of a sudden it becomes an event in which you participate.”

Crash Detroit in 2014. (Courtesy)

Crash Detroit in 2014. (Courtesy)

On to Detroit, Rio and Oz
James Hartrick, plays trombone in Detroit Party Marching Band and helped found Crash Detroit: “Every year at Honk they have a teach-in symposium learning day on Monday after the festival. … In past years, they’ve been at Harvard or something. The past couple years, they’ve been more informal table talks at the Dilboy VFW hall [in Somerville]. Two years ago, I sat in on it and they have one subject ‘Creating Your Own Brass Band Festival.’ Then last year, I really came in with a plan. We made promotional fliers up beforehand. We didn’t even have a date, but we were like July sometime, handed that out to other bands. We came in with a lot of big questions for them and there was a lot of advice offered. I got everyone’s contact information. They were definitely supportive from step one.”

The first Crash festival was held in Detroit in July 2014. Friday evening bands spontaneously appeared to play outside downtown bars. Saturday, a showcase of bands performed in a park near an iconic, abandoned train station and attracted 2,000 to 3,000 people, Hartrick says.

Cohen: “There’s going to be a Honk Oz in Australia in January. They’re using a lot of our language. They’re really tipping their hats to us.”

“In Rio, the Brazilian band [organizing the festival there] came here last year. I think they found us on the Internet and said they wanted to come. And they’re the real thing. They’re really political. Pretty exciting to have them. I think they were more exciting politically than musically. I was excited to hear a Brazilian band, Brazilian music, and I was surprised that they’re playing the same stuff we are. They’re called Os Siderais. There had been right before last year’s [Honk] festival a lot of street demonstrations in Rio. Around the World Cup. These big international events were taking support away from the people who need it most. So their public transportation system was being threatened. A lot of housing issues, school issues. I think a million people were in the streets of Rio that summer. We’ve heard from them. They want us to come. They’re talking about [holding Honk in Rio] next August.”

Hartrick: “The founders of the Detroit Party Marching Band actually attended Honk prior to starting the band. So Honk was definitely influential for the formation of Detroit Party Marching Band. … The Detroit music scene is a really big stage show city for any genre of music, any of the soul or funk or garage rock, the punk, the R&B, even the jazz. There is not a huge culture around street performances. … Detroit Party Marching Band kind of formed to fill that hole through a brass band tradition. … We wanted to kind of show the area and the city specifically that this culture exists. You don’t have to quit that trumpet after school, you can start your own band. You don’t have to put into only guitar, drum, bass categories. There’s a place for all musicians.”

Greg Cook is co-founder of WBUR’s ARTery. Share your Honk memories with him on Twitter @AestheticResear and on the Facebook.

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