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The Life and Death of the Infernal Noise Brigade

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The Infernal Noise Brigade at the anti-IMF protests in Prague.

While there are now dozens of street bands around the country and abroad, one from Seattle is known to have been an inspiration. The Infernal Noise Brigade debuted at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. Jill Freidberg from KBCS in Seattle has their story.

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(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, helicopters, horns, drum corps)

FREIDBERG: On November, 30th, 1999, protestors locked down the Seattle streets and shut out the WTO delegates. And for five days, the Infernal Noise Brigade helped keep them going. Jenna Barrett joined the INB for its Seattle debut.

Barrett: Demonstrations, in general, I think can get bogged down in walking through the streets and sometimes retracing your own steps, and it can feel really repetitive, and you get very tired. And music is inspirational. It gives people something to march to.

FREIDBERG: When the 18-member band rounded the corner flanked by thousands of demonstrators, their appearance inspired the crowds as much as their music did.

I-Ching: We had two rifle twirlers, and we had four flag bearers.

FREIDBERG: I-Ching was a member of the Infernal Noise Brigade’s flag and rifle corps.

I-Ching: Our initial colors started off as being green and black, and one of the uniform pieces that we had were furry, black, kind of Russian-style hats.

A member of the Infernal Noise Brigade in Prague.

FREIDBERG: The rifles, of course, weren’t real. It was all part of what Jenna Barrett called their playfully pseudo-military look.

Barrett: When you added the boots that we all wore, and the gas masks, and the cloths that we used to cover our faces, I think we looked pretty militant. And that certainly wasn’t our original intent, like that kind of came out of the pragmatism part of it.

FREIDBERG: Their uniforms had to be pragmatic. The band often placed itself on the front lines, between police and protestors.

Barrett: By staying there and just holding our ground and playing music, it helped to keep people there as well. It became more of a force to be reckoned with in a sense.

(Music starts, drum roll followed by horns)

FREIDBERG: In the months leading up to Seattle, the band had been meeting to talk about how they were going to participate in the protests. They rehearsed along Seattle’s industrial waterfront, surrounded by 40-foot shipping containers. When it rained, they played music under a highway overpass. I-ching attended those early rehearsals.

I-ching: Many of the members that became part of the Infernal Noise Brigade all had some type of experience in social activism. But for the most part, none of us had been in any group where there was marching involved. We had people who came and advised us in how to march. We had a woman who came and taught us how to do rifle twirling. And that was incredibly helpful because, you know, a lot of us had no idea how to do some of this stuff.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, drum roll, horns blare)

FREIDBERG: Despite being on the front lines, not a single member of the Infernal Noise Brigade was among the 600 people arrested during those five days of protest. It was a watershed moment. The WTO meetings were successfully shut down, and globalization became a household word.

Grey Filastine: At that historical moment, we felt like we had a tool and we should use it.

FREIDBERG: Greg Filastine was one of the founding members of the INB.

Grey Filastine: It seemed like we were actually gaining ground. We were making an impact. We were actually making a hell of a lot of noise, and they had to listen to it.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade)

Jenna Barrett: It changed my life. And the Infernal Noise Brigade, specifically, absolutely gelled that day.

That was just such a springboard for the INB. It inspired us to want to continue doing it, to provide that energy in other cities.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, wailing, horns, building)

The Infernal Noise Brigade in Cancun, Mexico.

FREIDBERG: After the Seattle protests, large mobilizations against global financial institutions erupted all over the globe. And the INB was there. The band traveled to Prague, Mexico, Scotland, New York.

Jenna Barrett: It allowed me the opportunity to express the way that I feel about authority.

FREIDBERG: Ronica Sanyal was teaching martial arts to sex workers in India before she joined the INB as a vocalist.

Ronica Sanyal: Authority has no place in creating beauty or vision or, you know, communities that are sustainable in this world. And that was one thing that the INB was committed to doing…not respecting authority! (laughing).

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, heavy horns and drums surge)

FREIDBERG: For I-Ching, traveling abroad with the Infernal Noise Brigade was also an opportunity to learn.

I-Ching: We got to experience what it was like to mobilize with people from other countries. To be able to participate and show solidarity was such like this wonderful experience, I remember I just almost wanted to cry.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, wailing, music slows and stops)

Ronica Sanyal: I left the INB for several reasons. Some of them are definitely political.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, slow, horns)

The Infernal Noise Brigade at the 2004 Republican National Convention protests in New York City.

FREIDBERG : Throughout the INB’s six year run, consecutive waves of band members came and went. Many moved on for personal reasons. Others, like Ronica Sanyal, left, in part, for ideological reasons. Within the resistance movements for which the INB provided a soundtrack, as well as within the band, people began asking this question: was it effective to travel to protests around the world, or did it make more sense to work locally to address root causes of social and economic injustice?

Ronica Sanyal: I didn’t feel that where the INB was, at that time, was where I felt like I was, politically. And the things that I was interested in doing, and the work that I was interested in doing, weren’t reflected. Which is not to say that the INB wasn’t crucial, just more that my role in the INB wasn’t crucial.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, music bed under ACT)

Grey Filastine : As the movement shifted and became even more decentralized, it became a system of diminishing returns, like anything. The first couple times? Really powerful, really strong. Each time you go you feel like people are getting tired of these tactics. You reach a point at which you’re like – No, this doesn’t work anymore. And actually that means – what is our purpose as a band and should we continue to exist?

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, horns end music with screaming and cheering)

FREIDBERG: The Infernal Noise Brigade decided to disband in 2006. Naturally, it didn’t end quietly.

Grey Filastine: The actual funeral party was one of the best events I’ve ever participated in, in my life. We had liked a weekend-long funeral party, played with like 40 people in the band, almost everyone who had ever played in the group. And it was just a perfect way to end this whole project.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, drum solo building)

FREIDBERG: Four years after the Infernal Noise Brigade’s funeral, Jenna Barrett insists that music and art still have a vital role to play in resistance movements

Jenna Barrett: I felt like we had done a lot of good work. I felt like the people we had supported and the work that we’d done had really made a difference. In fact, one of my strongest tenets of belief personally is that we live in a nation that has the strongest military in the world. We are never going to be able to outfight them. Ever. What we do have is our capacity for play, our capacity for joy, our capacity for comedy. And they’ll never get it. They’ll never get it! They’ll never be able to fight it.

(sound of Infernal Noise Brigade, triumphant music swells)

FREIDBERG: For Making Contact, I’m Jill Freidberg, with KBCS in Seattle.

Author: Kwan

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