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Marching to the Beat of their Own Drums

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A dancer twirls the baton with the Hungry March Band at the Honk! Festival Credit: Sarah Danson

Marching bands from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon are bringing humor, politics, and a unique sound to the streets – many of them with a message of social justice.  Once a year, many of these street bands travel to Massachusettes for the Honk Festival. Sarah Danson has more about the festival, and the historical and political traditions that fuel their music.

(sound of Honk! Festival)

DANSON: It’s noon on a crisp, sunny day in October in Somerville, Massachusetts. A small park in ‘Davis Square’ is filled with musicians, carrying a variety of shiny brass instruments. They look as colorful as their music. Some are wearing what seems like the contents of a child’s play closet. One guy is wearing a skin-tight lime green bunny suit.

(sound of musicians)

DANSON: Musicians are warming up their instruments while observers mill about – taking in the beautiful day. they’re all waiting for the start of the fourth annual honk festival, a weekend long event dedicated to brass street bands.

(MUSIC: HEAVY BRASS)

DANSON: That’s the pink puffers. They’re just one of the 28 alternative marching bands represented here.  These groups of musical artists are also known as radical brass bands, marching bands, do it yourself brass bands, activist street bands, the clandestine brass underground, and honk bands.   Sara valentine, a dancer with the hungry march band in New York prefers a broader term: global brass! She says the movement is influenced by a do-it-yourself, punk aesthetic and attitude.

Sarah Valentine: Anybody can make music pick up a guitar play through three chords.  This is the same idea, like, anybody can play music. Pick up a brass instrument, pick up a drum, choreoograph a simple dance routine and you can have this, this community project that’s exciting and fun and participatory and uplifting and grass roots and something that people can share together.

DANSON: The music these bands play isn’t what you’d hear in a high school band. It’s loud, it’s primarily heard on the streets, and it takes from brass music from around the world. Members of the bands are generally in their late 20s or early 30s.  And, they’re having fun!

Sarah Valentine: Hungry March Band didn’t start to like create a revolution.  Hungry March Band was formed by a bunch of people that wanted to make noise and make a spectacle.

(FADE OUT HEAVY BRASS MUSIC)

DANSON: While some bands may be more interested in revolution than others, just the very nature of them challenges status quo, says Daniel Lang-Levitsky of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, or the RMO in Brooklyn.

Daniel Lang-Levitsky:Any streetbrass project, whether or not it thinks it is, is a political project in   the way that it takes up public space, doesn’t rely on the apparatus of a club, amplification, etc and the way that way that it’s a fundamentally participatory musical experience. But within that broader realm of street bands there’s this, the group of bands that are explicitly political projects.

DANSON: The Rude Mechanical Orchestra is one of these bands. Lang/levitsky says that from day-one, the band has played to support many different causes. And has risked arrest to do so.

Daniel Lang-Levitsky: We talk about the band as having, as having formed for the 2004 mobilization against the Republican National Convention in New York. Which was mostly focused on the one hand on anti-war, anti-war organizing and on a set of local, of local issues mainly affecting poor, working class communities of color. But the band’s first, before the band existed and had a name and a structure, it actually it’s actual birth point was for the earlier March For Women’s Lives in DC. And that, I feel like we tend to get talked about as much more of a group with a history of working on anti-war stuff, on the class and race issues in the city, but paired with that from the very beginning has been, has been feminist and queer and trans issues. Which also very much reflects the make-up of the band.

DANSON: LANG/LEVITSKY SAYS THE RMO AND OTHER STREET BANDS CONNECT TO LARGER POLITICAL MOVEMENTS, BOTH PAST AND PRESENT, BY PLAYING THEIR MUSIC.

Daniel Lang_levitsky : The, the history of solidarity between movements in different places has been a history of learning each other’s music and singing together… if you talk to folks who were, who have been part of radical movements, pretty much anywhere, that gets talked about as what makes, what makes movements connect to each other is in part being able to sit down with folks and sing together and play music together. Whether that’s us and us and the Italian folks who are visiting right now, playing Bella Ciao together or or jumping in on Amena Terramino which is an Italian immigration song or learning Cosi Sickaleli Afrika of learning of learning partisan songs from Germany, from Spain, from Italy that are ways of making a connection that’s not an intellectual connection with other communities in struggle that you have in your body in your voice.

DANSON: IN THE PAST DECADE, POLITICAL STREET BANDS HAVE BECOME A VIBRANT PART OF MANY PROTESTS. MANY WERE INSPIRED BY THE INFERNAL NOISE BRIGADE AT THE 1999 WTO PROTESTS IN SEATTLE.  BUT THE HISTORY OF THESE BANDS GOES BACK MUCH FURTHER. IN THE 1960S ONE NOTABLE GROUP USED BRASS MUSIC IN ANTI-WAR PROTESTS. MICHELE HARDESTY WAS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE RUDE MECHANICAL ORCHESTRA.

Michele Hardesty: One group that was based in New York back in the sixties and is now based in rural Vermont is Bread and Puppet theatre.  Who have always combined political theatre, puppet theatre with street music.  They’ve always had a brass band playing a long with their, with their actions and with their shows.  They started back in the lower east side back in the 1960s doing anti-war, Vietnam, anti-war actions and have continued to this day.  Coming to and inspiring others to do combine kind of performance, cultural performance with political action.

(SOUND  OF  MOANIN’ TROMBONE)

DANSON: In the United States brass music is very often associated with military music.  Even in that context though, it has had major social influences.  In world war one the famed Harlem Hellfighters, or the 369th infantry regiment, was the first African-American regiment.  They were also highly decorated by the French.  And they had a brass band, led by James Reese europe, that brought ragtime music to Europe for the first time.

(sound)

DANSON: But perhaps the most famous street bands in America are New Orleans bands.  These bands often played at funerals, around the turn of the century.  They were arranged by social aid and pleasure clubs, which were founded to give newly freed slaves loans, legal council, and education.

(music: underground)

DANSON: Balkan brass is also a strong influence. The songs of the Romani, more commonly referred to as gypsys, are another musical favorite the bands because of their link to oppression.  This is the Hungry March Band’s version of Kalishnikov, the theme to the Serbian film underground.

(music: underground)

DANSON: But perhaps the most universally-played song played by politcal alternative marching bands is “Bella Ciao.”

(MUSIC: BELLA CIAO)

DANSON: This is an anti-fascist Italian song about a partisan fighter who’s preparing to die for liberty.  It’s a well-known protest song and appeals to the political nature of some of the bands.  Here are the brass messengers playing their version.

(MUSIC: BELLA CIAO)

Michelle Hardesty: I think the purpose of these bands is good, its bringing music back to the street.

DANSON: Michelle Hardesty, again.

Michelle Hardesty: Back to just public spaces, it’s celebrating public spaces, it’s celebrating the potential for anyone to pick up an instrument and learn it and play together in a big band…march music, the appropriate march music is a brass band!

Daniel Lang-Levitsky: There is a wonderful line of Toni Cade Barbara’s that “the task of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible.” And that is a lot of what we do.

DANSON: For Making Contact, I’m Sarah Danson.

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Author: Kwan

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