Concert(s) review: HONK! Festival 2013

Technically the HONK! festival is only about half over, but I’ve worn myself out so much this week I don’t really see myself being able to attend any more of it (well, maybe the parade…). So: I will take this time to write and share videos and such.

The HONK! festival is an annual festival in Somerville, Massachusetts, bringing together activist street bands from across the world (although for cost reasons most of them are from the U.S., I did see both European and South American bands this weekend). From the “What is HONK!” page on their website…

Across the country and around the world, a new type of street band is emerging. Acoustic and mobile, borrowing repertoire and inspiration from a diverse set of folk music traditions – New Orleans second line brass bands, European Klezmer, Balkan and Romani music, Brazilian Afro Bloc and Frevo traditions, as well as the passion and spirit of Mardi Gras and Carnival– these “honkers” all share a commitment to several core principles. Metaphorically speaking, they honk their horns for the same reasons motorists honk theirs: to arouse fellow travelers, to warn of danger, to celebrate milestones, and to just plain have fun.

First and foremost, they honk their horns – or beat their drums, or wave their flags – to enliven and embolden their audience. Members vary widely in age, class, ethnicity and background, and although they often wear some kind of uniform, there is also always an emphasis on individuality and a “DIY” (do-it-yourself) sensibility to their instrumentation and attire. These bands play music that is truly of, by, and for “the people.” The distinction between performer and audience, just like the distinctions between different musical genres, is just one more arbitrary social boundary they aspire to overcome.

The result of all this as far as the audience goes is that we have a four-day entirely-free festival full of the craziest, most fun brass and marching bands that you’ll ever see in one place. Since Thursday I’ve seen nine bands plus a jam session, and my favorite band so far was Os Siderais from Brazil (so good I had to see them twice!):

That video was from Thursday night’s pre-HONK! kick-off concert, held in front of Precinct Bar in Union Square in Somerville (a nearly-convenient walk from where I live, so it was a no-brainer to attend). They were actually borrowing some drummers from other bands (Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band and Environmental Encroachment, IIRC) because their own set of percussionists hadn’t arrived in Somerville yet. I saw them again on Saturday evening with their complete band and it was another stellar show. Both times they had people dancing up a storm and practically begging for more music at the end of their set.

Another highlight of Thursday’s kick-off concert was a local brass brand, the Dirty Water Brass Band – I snagged a video of one of their pieces as well:

That was early in the show before a lot of people showed up, so I was able to set my little tripod on the ground and film without the SarahV ShakiCam™ effect. Their dancing trombonist also showed up to the jam session on Friday night at Johnny D’s in Davis Square, which was also a lot of fun. I didn’t stay for the whole night on Friday because I’d forgotten my earplugs and there’s nothing quite like a band including three trumpets, four saxophones, and five trombones to make your ears ring! I did stick around long enough to see the jam session, Perhaps Contraption and The Young Fellaz Brass Band. I have the feeling the Young Fellaz would have been a real favorite of mine if they’d played earlier, but I was getting very tired by then and left about 2/3 of the way through their set. (Forgive me – I’d been sick with asthmatic problems for the better part of two weeks and was utterly exhausted.) I was glad to catch the tail end of one of their sets on Saturday to make up for leaving early on Friday – they had drawn a large and very enthusiastic crowd, which was great to see.

Following the Young Fellaz on Saturday evening was the Gora Gora Orkestar, who ended up being one of my favorites of the eight or nine bands that I saw – they were wonderful, and a perfect example of a HONK! band: they had a fun theme/uniform (cowboys), a diverse band, and a creative interpretation of what kind of music a street band can and should play. I took a video of one of their songs (bonus – this video features a random dancing dinosaur dude, because it’s HONK!):

Although I may have reached the end of my tether, there is much more HONK! to come! And if you are less tired than I am, you should check it out. On Sunday, October 13 there is a parade (from Davis Square to Harvard Square) and a series of performances in Harvard Square as part of the Oktoberfest celebration there. On Monday, October 14 they are heading to Providence, Rhode Island for PRONK! (full schedule for Providence can be found here). And from October 15-19 HONK! is heading to New York, where there will be a series of performances, workshops and so forth (full schedule here).

Sunday afternoon edit/update: I did end up seeing the parade, against my better judgment – but it was a lot of fun even though I was really tired, and I was glad I got to see the rest of the bands I didn’t have time to catch on Saturday, even if it was just a brief glimpse. I actually saw the parade about 1.4 times because of a public transit snafu (it was complicated, but surprisingly did not involve time travel). I took some video of the parade passing by – also featuring the Somerville Police and/or Department of Public Works finally remembering that they were supposed to close Russell Street after 2/3 of the parade had already passed by (being honked at, driven through, etc. by cars the entire time).

I think the most fun part of the HONK! festival is that there is such an accepting and friendly atmosphere – you can go out wearing anything you want, looking like anything you want, being as strange as you like, and generally all you’ll get in return is smiles.

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5 Responses to Concert(s) review: HONK! Festival 2013

  1. David says:

    Gora Gora are good friends of ENSMB! Their bandleader (the one with the cast on his arm) used to play with us way back when he lived here. We <3 them a whole lot.

    • Sarah V. says:

      I thought their whole set was really good! Made up for sleeping almost the entire afternoon on Saturday, I got there just a few min before their 6PM set…

  2. THP says:

    Thanks for your kind words and video of DWBB 😀

  3. mister petey says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and enthusiastic review of HONK!fest 2013. I have been performing at the HONK fest with Environmental Encroachment from Chicago since the first event (2006) and we are all hooked on an ever-more amazing collection of musicians and dancers, organizers and volunteers, and positive family-friendly audiences! Now as many EE-ers as possible stay on tour and go to Providence and NYC the following week

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