HONK!: Takin’ It To The Streets

- October 18, 2012

"Music to Move People"

HONK! is an annual festival of activist street bands held in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a drummer with the Los Alamos-based Hill Stompers (perhaps you’ve witnessed the Stompers at the annual Santa Fe Pet Parade or other community functions.) I was recently able to witness and participate in this exhilarating experience first hand.

More than 30 groups from all corners of the U.S., plus Canada and even Italy converged for the 2012 Honk! Fest. With band names like Minor Mishap Marching Band, Seed and Feed Marching Abominable, Pink Puffers Brass Band, Environmental Encroachment, Chaotic Noise Marching Corps and Primate Fiasco,you catch on that this a gathering of fun-loving, high-spirited performers. Imagine marching bands with a social/political cause, musicians of all ages carrying any breed of instrument that is mobile, various color themes and work in some theatrics and audience participation.

This was the first year for the ’Stompers and in an attempt to avoid being mistaken for anyone else, we decided to dress in that natural color combination of...orange and purple. Members had been scouring thrift stores and eBay to assemble our attire and we were, consequently, easily distinguished when scattered about. Ranging in age from 14 to 82, The Hill Stompers avail a wide array of horn instruments and drums and percussion. For this event, an electric cello powered by a battery amplifier was added. Dancers with festive hula hoops enhanced the theatrics. Our repertoire ran from old standards to classic favorites to original material. We wowed ’em with such crowd grabbers as “Green Onions,” "Sing Sing Sing,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”  and “Hava Nagila.”

Bands played scheduled shows at various outdoor locations around Somerville. Although I was unable to witness some of the bands' performances, many I saw went beyond the basic horn and drum lineup with banjo, accordion, bagpipes, violin and an innovative xylophone made from hanging circular saw blades.

During our two-mile parade into Harvard Square, the bands were staggered with non-musical community organizations. Later that evening there was an All Band Blowout Concert at the historic Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, with each getting an eight-minute slot. Try to imagine the instrument storage area in the theater’s basement that night.  Let me tell you, it was one honking chaotic mess...and I mean that in the best possible way.

While many of the groups’ members are united in a cause, music was the focus of the weekend. The Hill Stompers’ mission, by the way, was "fun." That's a good cause, right? 

From the Honkfest.org site: The distinction between performer and audience, just like the distinctions between different musical genres, is just one more arbitrary social boundary they (the bands) aspire to overcome. Spectators often think “Hey, I could do that!” and, indeed, these bands often recruit new members right off the street.

There are now other Honk!-inspired street band festivals around the country. Check them out or, better yet, join or start a group.