Stay on the path!  
  Contribute Articles and Poems  

Reflections on Honk Fests East and West

by Charles Keil
Submitted 6/13/08

I missed the first Honk Fest in Somerville fall of 2006. And it was my 50th HS reunion took me away from Saturday night and the parade on Sunday that were the high points of Somerville's Honk Fest II in October of 2007. I did get to join with the Original Big Seven (really Big Three: great sousaphonist, 2 fine drummers all you need) from New Orleans in opening the weekend on Friday, bonking and honking on my conch shell until it was time to talk.  I made the mistake of reading a statement on the theory of practicing "participation" as both an English (Barfield) and French (Levy-Bruhl) concept of involvement-consubstantiation-pretotemistic-identification with the cosmic lifeforces via music-dance.  Reebee G., my host and MC for the opening panel, wanted to hear about the 8 phases of the lizzard day on the 12/8 Path and I explained what our innyrd lyzzyrd brain wants us do in the way of moving & grooving, crapping & napping, exploring & snoring, to his and everyone's satisfaction I'm sure because eyelids began to droop in the audience -- that lizard in the sun look. Hopefully future Honkfest talk sessions will be all audience-participation and no lectures. 
My second chore at Somerville Honk Fest II was to help get a band started on Saturday that could join the parade on Sunday. With Dave Hebert's help and the directors of Tufts' concert band and Somerville High School's concert band pitching in on trumpet, cornet and trombone respectively we got a few riffs together in a hurry with the assembled volunteers from two bands. I'm always amazed at how quick and easy it is to get a sufficient rhythm section together and plug horn riffs into different grooves. But it is always clear to me that the quick and easy start up doesn't allow for any fine tuning, any new strokes for different folks. You can't take time to work with one player or a section on technique, or timing tricks, or dynamics, or encouraging wider vibratoes, or any of the other "outdoor" processes that need to be "reclaimed" and revitalized to sound full, Natural, traditionally NewOrleanian,  or brazenly Balkan.   Having heard the stadium-filling sousaphoning that cornerstoned the Big Three the day before, I had a fresh appreciation of just how far away we are in New England, how distant in space from New Orleans, and how distant in time from Danbury's George Ives, father of Charlie, who wanted to hear two bands marching thru each other playing entirely different tunes in the 1880s.  We didn't dare try that experiment 125 years later.  The band we did put together in one session played well enough and sounded "as good as the others" to me, catching just a snip of "Nunca Contigo Mi Amor" that was included in the DVDs documenting, or honkumenting, the Sunday parade (currently available from the organizing committee in Somerville), but confident wildness, relaxed exuberance, the necessary slippage that enhances a groove without slowing the tempo, takes time and trust that the drum interlock will be there when asked for, or without being asked for, that the horn riffs will open spaces for short bursts of soloing, that horns will know when to stop and give the drummers time to flail at full volume. All this takes time, familiarity, trust, ensemble joy in playing together. 
Which gets me to what I learned at Honk Fest West in Seattle about a month ago, March 20-23rd, 2008 and how those learnings were confirmed by the DVDs of Fest East when I picked them up a week later visiting Boston.  Bill Clifford emailed me to ask about the possibility of hooking up street bands and band organizers to play and/or have a panel discussion at the University of Washington's Cultural Diversity In Music Education (CDIME) Conference where I was scheduled for a talk and a workshop. We started out thinking about an Easter Peace Parade on Sunday following the weekend conference, hoping that 3 or perhaps 4 bands might get together. We got an OK from the east coast Honk Fest organizers to use the name, along with wishes that we keep to the spirit of affirming life, making joy explicit, not seeking confrontations, etc. and as word got around of Honk Fest West, 8 or 9 bands wanted to participate. By the time the Seattle committee got to poster making, 18 bands were on the list, coming from Vancouver, Santa Cruz, Chicago, New York, Olympia, in addition to the Seattle area bands, a few of whom faded at the last minute.  As on the East Coast, I missed a lot of the workshops and other activities during the days because of CDIME, only caught part of the gigs at night, sat in with the Olympia's Peace Band It's, had a very nice stroll with a mix of players from different bands on a damp Sunday afternoon and realized that my call for a Dionysian blown and beaten revolution in 1982 was getting thru! my 12/8 Path dreams and visions circa 1990 were coming true!  A movement to revive and spread street bands, carnival bands, circus bands, brass bands that do everything brass bands used to do a century ago, AND MORE! -- was really underway.  So here I sit, still not having fully participated in a Honk Fest yet, but knowing that full participation is possible and that a movement toward brass bands, plural, in every neighborhood and town is underway and gathering momentum. Anarchism works. Emma Goldman could dance to this. The blown and beaten outdoor sound of that good old time religion is back!  
There are a lot of bands springing up. Can we increase their number? Can high school and college pep bands morph into honk bands? Can the New Orleans band & social club scene be nurtured in every city? What's keeping this rapid ripple effect from becoming a wave, and soon?   
Some of the more established bands are big and very, very hot: e.g. Hungry March and Yellow Hatband that I heard in Seattle, and others I hear a lot about or see on youtube.  They are grooving, executing, great soloists, good "social club" or "second line" or "creating our own party" strategies with stilt walkers, jugglers, some kind of schtick attracting people visually.  Big sound, big sight, getting bigger (12 to 20 performers), usually in a Balkan-klezmerish style and spirit. (I suspect Zlatne Uste and the Balkan Music Camps on East and West Coasts over the past two decades should be credited with seeding and inspiring these bands. Or maybe the Ivo Papasov bands and Balkan Romani tenacity has more magnetism in it, or has spread faster over media, than I imagined it could.)  Whatever the inspiration, these bands have come a long way in a hurry. 
Every band is different. The set of 3 DVDS out of Somerville makes that clear -- What Cheer! of Providence, R.I., funky Pink Puffers all the way from Rome, Italy, Somerville's own Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, other powerhouse bands share Afro-roots but yield different fruits.  I missed half the bands in Seattle.  But every band I have heard clearly has its own core grooves, a different instrumentation, e.g. a band from Quebec with flutes, clarinets, bassoon, 2 accordians!  A one man band in the Somerville fest gave me the biggest thrill so far: the guy had more explicit consensus politics! good interlock of footwork with clarinet! & high level of trust between rhythm section and horn! The Black Bear Combo out of Chicago was just a foursome live in Seattle -- sax, accordian (nearly inaudible), sousaphone and heavy bass drum -- introduced me to jazz-punk-balkan energies I didn't know existed. Seeing them with the trumpet player, sax, sousaphone, bass drum lineup on the DVDs reinforced my own confidence that a duo or trio or quartet can be high energy, in the street, danceable, acoustic, mobile, meet all the Honk/Path requirements I can imagine. Small is beautiful too. 
The politics of it all are way better than what I was imagining and calling for back in 1982 ("Applied Ethnomusicology and a Rebirth of Music from the Spirit of Tragedy" in Ethnomusicology, Vol.XXVI, No. 3, pgs. 407 to 411) and I think this is because reviving the "spirit of music" is really the point. Don't need a lot of signage. Don't need megaphone voice shouting correct slogans.  We make our own music. We make it in the street, outdoors, for everyone, we give it away, we collaborate and get better and better as an ensemble, we want you to dance with us, party with us, come alive, get active -- and that is the political message. We exist therefore we honk. We can't be shut up. We won't go away. We are getting stronger.  We represent the peaceful and echologically sustainable future of joy and pleasure. We are becoming the world. Without war. 
Back in 1982 I wanted to see the mass murderers, the administrators of massacres, hauled into court, given a fair trial, and if found guilty, hung by the neck until dead; yes, the death penalty reserved for those who have murdered thousands.  I argued that attempted genocide, or what we now often call "ethnic cleansing," using the words of the perpetrators, was the crime against humanity that could be stopped if more people could enliven themselves thru music-dance, participate fully in life,  and escape the alienations from labor, society, Nature and our very own bodies.  It is these alienations that numb us emotionally, dull us, dumb us down, and let us condone the systematic creation of extreme inequality, let us tolerate the plundering of the commons for the profit of a few, and let us accept mass murders as a bad and finally incomprehensible fate that happens to trapped peoples in other states.
I still think this way.  It seems to me that a Global Organization Of Democracies (GOOD) working year-round with the new International Criminal Court (ICC) could find ways to intervene before "ethnic cleansing" or attempted genocide happens, and could make a highly publicized attempt to arrest a dictator and his top administrators, or a small group of terrorists, so that a very small group of people are less and less likely to be able to get away with mass murder in the future.  But today I recognize that waking up from the alienations, getting potatoes off the couch and back to being people making the best possible use of a precious human birth, is the liberation that will make GOOD processes happen. We need an awake populace that can demand a stop to crimes against humanity, remove the causes of terrorism, and finally, halt these senseless, completely unwinnable wars and thoroughly counterproductive occupations.  Honking on the Path is one way to do that. Getting the word out that we are all Born To Groove (.org & .com) is another.
I've decided not to blog, plog (poetry) or cclog (conserving consensus log) on the web anymore, but just be in the streets, be outdoors, be gardening, be honking and bonking more of the time.  Any live drumming beats looking into a screen.  "One tone is worth a thousand tomes" (R. Rudd).  Honk!  To disrupt his-story (Starhawk), and for those who would dance the "steps to an ecology of mind" (G. Bateson).

Back to the 12/8 Path Times Front Page


Path Home | Why? | Why Not? | How To Start A Path Band | Plenty of Path for Everyone
Path Times | Contribute Articles and Poems