In its 10th year, with 28 bands traveling in from all over the country and abroad, the annual HONK! Festival brought music blended with activism to a variety of free events in Somerville, Cambridge and Boston this past weekend, from Friday, Oct. 9 to Sunday, Oct. 11.
HONK! has more than doubled the number of bands it brings to the area since its inaugural year in 2006, when 12 bands performed in Davis Square. The festival has evolved into an annual celebration of “the cause of freedom, justice and collective emancipation,” with activist bands coming from as far afield as Paris, New Orleans, Detroit, Seattle and Austin, according to its website.
According to a press release, the 12 bands that comprised the 2006 festival gathered on a Saturday in October.
“Those initial bands gathered in response to a call sent out by the Somerville-based Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, who had a need to seek out kindred spirit music makers and invite them to gather and play their collective hearts out, while raising awareness for local and global just causes,” the press release said.
The 2015 HONK! Festival also commemorated the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with the New Creations Brass Band, and the Original Big Seven Social Aid & Pleasure Club (the Big 7) came from New Orleans to perform, according to the press release.
According to Terry Gable, vice president of the Big 7, their band is not a marching band, but rather a “second lining” society, or a brass and dance group practicing a particular tradition of New Orleans’ parade culture. Gable, who has been second lining for more than three decades, roamed around Davis Square with other members of the Big 7 on Saturday and danced with various bands as they played. He expressed his excitement to perform at HONK!, as it brings people from different backgrounds together.
“[HONK!] is beautiful. This is my third year coming up,” Gable said. “I love it. I’d be ready to come every year.”
Continuing its mission of bringing street band music to the Boston public to “create an irresistible spectacle of creative movement and sonic self-expression directed at making the world a better place,” according to HONK!’s website, the 2015 Festival started with a Day of Action near the Boston Commons that led to Downtown Crossing on Friday.
Seven activist bands, including Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Les Vilains Chicots, partnered with various unions and community organizations such as Jobs with Justice and Fight for $15 at the kickoff event. The bands performed and handed out information in Downtown Crossing for most of the day to increase awareness of the ongoing national conversation about raising the minimum wage, ensuring paid sick leave and promoting other workers’ rights.
More than 25 bands played at different places in Somerville on Saturday, including Davis Square Plaza, Seven Hills Park behind Elm Street, Highland Avenue Lot and Statue Park near JP Licks. Many members of the bands wore colorful outfits, including sequined clothing and spandex in bright colors. The Dead Music Capital Band, from Austin, wore zombie face paint. After the opening ceremonies at noon, the music kicked off at around 1 p.m., according to the event schedule.
Though Davis was not blocked to traffic, police directed cars because of the increased number of pedestrians. According to HONK! all-volunteer organizing committee member Ken Field, who is also the saxophonist the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, Davis Square is an ideal location for the festival because bands don’t get in the way of one another acoustically.
“This isn’t generally a festival people play at because they get paid; they play because they believe in what they’re doing, both musically and with what they’re doing in their communities,” Field said.
Most of the bands had two one-hour slots, each of which was set for a different place around Davis Square. There was also an information booth set up in Statue Park where the organizers of HONK! were selling T-shirts and buttons to raise money for future iterations of the festival.
HONK! also sponsored several exhibits for participants and pedestrians around Davis Square on Saturday, including a photo exhibit and a poster series. The “What is an Activist Street Band” poster series near Davis Square Plaza featured posters highlighting various bands and their activities in their respective communities.
The entire festival is organized by the HONK! Committee, which is a non-hierarchical body of about a dozen people, according to Field.
“There is no one person who is empowered to make the decisions; we make the decisions as a group, and I’ve really learned a lot about that kind of organizational structure,” he said. “It’s something that can be really challenging and really frustrating, but is also something that can be really powerful.”
Local businesses also took advantage of the jump in foot traffic in Davis Square, with Diesel Cafe opening its storefront and setting up a table to sell mulled cider, whoopie pies and other items directly to passerby.
“The festival as a whole has been really attentive to the community needs in making sure we’re working together with local businesses and community groups to grow [the event],” Sara Honeywell, who is also a member of the HONK! Committee and a trombone player for Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, said. “We try to pay attention to detail when it comes to getting everyone involved.”
While many Tufts students were at the Homecoming festivities on Saturday, some were able to make it to Davis to enjoy HONK!’s music and activities.
“I love HONK! It’s quintessential Somerville ethos,” junior Ben Kaplan said after walking through most of the festival with friends.
Sunday saw more than double the number of Saturday’s bands participating in the parade — which marched from Davis Square to Harvard Square, passing through Porter Square — and one band also brought the spirit of street band activism to the tension between the Tufts administration, Tufts Labor Coalition, Tufts’ custodial staff and DTZ, Tufts’ cleaning services contractor. Rand Wilson of the Red Bandanna Brigade organized an event on Facebook for Tufts workers and students to march with the Brigade during Sunday’s parade in order to “Call on Tufts to respect its workers and our community.” Wilson could not be reached for comment by press time.
Describing its bands as socially engaged, either in direct political protest or community-building, HONK! is spreading nationally and internationally, according to Field. He spoke with HONK! organizers in Australia, who came to visit Somerville’s HONK!. Additionally, according to the festival’s website, yearly HONK! festivals are being held in places such as Providence, New York City, N.Y. Seattle, Detroit and Brazil.
Tufts sociology lecturer Brett Nava-Coulter, who specializes in sex and gender in society as well as social movements, noted the importance of HONK!.
“Obviously the model is spreading, that model of public performance,” Nava-Coulter said. “Things like HONK!, and HONK! in particular, are part of this broad repertoire of social movements. [These are] the kinds of tactics that social movements, and in particular progressive movements, use to get their message out, recruit members and have a cohesive presence.”
Commenting on the festival, Honeywell said music is the connection.
“I think that playing music with other people has a really big ability to make strong, lasting connections right off the bat,” Honeywell said.
Field agreed, noting the importance of the camaraderie surrounding the festival.
“For me, it’s all about the people and the community,” he said. “The HONK! community.”