Music and activism converge at HONK! festival

An activist street brass band performs at the 14th HONK! festival in Davis Square on Oct. 12. Mengqi Irina Wang / The Tufts Daily

“We started in isolation, we didn’t know that there were other street bands,” Elizabeth Wolff said of her band. “And then we got invited to HONK!”

Wolff is a member of the Leftist Marching Band, one of 25 bands that descended upon Davis Square this weekend for HONK!, an annual festival of music and activism. Bands played all day on Saturday in Davis Square, across seven venues in parks, plazas and blocked-off streets. On Sunday the festival continued in the form of a parade from Davis Square to Harvard Square. Multiple HONK! festivals take place around the country each year, but the oldest is Somerville’s, where some bands like the Leftist Marching Band have been playing since the festival’s first year in 2006

“The first year there were 12 bands,” Ken Field, a member of HONK!’s organizing committee, said. Field has played in the festival since its first year, which he said “was kind of chaotic and crazy, but it was awesome.”

“Now we have 25 bands, 500 musicians. So it’s grown a lot,” he added.

Field made it clear that HONK!, as a community-based event, has grown because of extensive involvement from all parts of the local community.

“We’re all volunteers on the organizing committee, so we work on it all year round to make it happen … I’m a professional musician, some of us are amateur musicians, some of us on the committee are not musicians at all, but they all love the festival and want to help us out,” Field said.

For many bands, HONK! provides a unique opportunity to play among other unconventional musical groups with a shared interest in politically focused performances of music on the street. 

“The HONK! festival is made up of mostly bands that are activist street bands … the people are in it to do good things in their communities,” Field said.

Some bands signaled that HONK! is unique among festivals they have the opportunity to perform at, with its emphasis on playing in the streets as a form of activism.

“We wanted to find a brass band-specific festival for not-your-straightforward-marching-bands, and this was the first we had really heard of … when we heard about it, we knew we needed to come,” said Mike Smith. Smith is director and co-founder of Environmental Encroachment, a brass band from Chicago which has returned 12 times since first coming to HONK! in 2006.

A common link between the performances was the fusion of the artistic and the political. “What we do is make art in a political fashion,” Wolff said of the Leftist Marching Band. “Bands have different approaches to that, but that’s basically what we’re all here for.”

Performing immediately after the Leftist Marching Band was the Forward! Marching Band, who similarly used their platform for musically based political activism. To the beat of a drum they led call-and-response chants of “What’s disgusting?” “Union busting,” and “What’s outrageous?” “Poverty wages.”

Just down the street, the feminist band Fanfarra Feminina Sagrada Profana led their own call and response, beginning with “We are women. We are strong,” to which the crowd raised their fists in solidarity.

Many of the bands seemed at home leading crowds in political expression, and have roots in musical activism.

“We play mostly at political events and protests and rallies … we did a lot of anti-war stuff, we do climate change things, labor rallies, that sort of thing,” Wolff said about the Leftist Marching Band.

Field similarly emphasized the role of political activism as the central force behind many of the bands playing at HONK!

“The people are in it just to do good things in their community: play at rallies, play at protests. It’s kind of like the old folk music protest thing. That’s kind of where it’s coming from,” Field said.

In addition to the performers themselves, Davis Square was full of activists on the ground supporting various causes. “Ask me about ranked choice voting,” read the shirts of several people with petitions to reform Massachusetts’ electoral system. Other individuals distributed flyers with information on issues such as climate change, reparations and impeachment.

On Sunday, activist groups joined the bands to form a parade marching from Davis Square to Harvard Square. Among the groups marching in the parade were several Tufts-based organizations, including Tufts United for Immigrant Justice, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine and the percussion group Banging Everything at Tufts (BEATs).

A few students in the parade participated for a unique academic purpose, immersing themselves in the festival to fully understand it as an object of study.

Several students came to do research as students in the class Myth, Ritual, and Symbol (Anthropology 132), “otherwise known as the “Honkthropologists of Tufts,” as first-year Leah Cohen described it.

“We’ve been using [HONK!] to examine how symbol and ritual can play into activism, and how we can use those to aid us in our activism,” junior Emily Gheewalla said.

By participating and fully immersing themselves, these students were able to fully understand every aspect of the cultural event they were participating in. Cohen described the festival as a “touchstone” for understanding their class’ central topics within the context of Somerville

A major result of HONK! is the arrival of people from all parts of the local community into Davis Square. Seats were packed in the patios of Davis Square restaurants, and plazas and streets were filled with masses of people dancing to the music, all sharing the public space.

“It’s been really uplifting to be here this past weekend and meet lots of local community members who are all working towards our shared goals … and just uniting the communities of Tufts and Somerville,” Cohen said.


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