Closing festivities for Honk! Fest West 2012 at the Experience Music Project. Photo courtesy of Wayne Worden.
Jhon Sanders of Many Mouths One Stomach talks with Michael Antares and Tyson Lynn from Seattle’s Honk! Fest West about the brass band renaissance, the role of street music in folk life, and all things Honk.
“Our festival is part musical gathering, part community activism. Many of us play an instrument. Some don’t. But all of us have found that live, energetic, mobile, acoustic music—no matter which side of the mouthpiece you are on—brings audience and band together in something like family. A raucous, playful family.” – HONK! Fest West website
What comes to mind when you think “brass band”? A college football game? John Philip Sousa? Military marches? The Rose Parade, maybe?
How about “music festival”? Do you think of Bonnaroo, Coachella, or some other such enormous commercial event produced for profit by a big entertainment company?
For over a decade now, mobile, non-electrified musical groups of varied sizes and styles have played an increasingly significant role in rallying energies in public spaces, be it for party or protest (and often these are one and the same!). Driven by a participatory and do-it-yourself ethic that dissolves such distinctions as performer and audience and other perceived barriers in a carnavalesque turnabout, a new kind of folk music is emerging. One that serves to help us find our collective heartbeat through the art of musical fun-making.
Since 2006, many such ragtag street ensembles have gathered together in a number of colorful convocations that celebrate the integral role music and rhythm play in community life, known collectively as Honk (or some variation thereof). They are music festivals, yes, but of a decidedly different quality and character than the one where you paid $400 for a weekend of gazing at big name acts on a stage in an anonymous crowd of thousands. For here, you do more than passively consume a carefully manufactured spectacle; you are an intrinsic element in the action, wherein the bands themselves merely provide the soundtrack.
In early June of this year, i had the opportunity to attend and assist with the Pacific Northwest’s regional variant of this cultural phenomenon, Honk! Fest West. Two weeks later i was able to meet up for a chat with two of the organizers, M.A. Antares and Tyson Lynn, at a neighborhood cafe in Seattle’s Ballard district. Read on and learn more from this dialogue about the renaissance of street music presently underway and its many boisterous manifestations around the country marching under the banner of Honk!
jhon: How would you characterize the nature of the music and musicians that comprise Honk, and how does it compare with or differ from what you would experience at your garden-variety music festival?
M.A.: I know for me it’s kind of all summed up in the phrase “community street band”, which can mean anything from a massive samba line that’s a community samba school but they’re putting out like 40 people in the street for the bateria, to a five or six person collection of acoustic instrumentalists, to that kind of more marching band ensemble where people have the brass instruments combined with the percussion combined with woodwinds and reeds, etc. So community street band is kind of the banner that I see all of the bands collecting under, which is one thing that makes it different from the average music festival.
Tyson: The other part is that there is no sound guy, there’s no stages, there’s no separation between the performers and the audience. The band itself is the “sound guy”; if something doesn’t sound right, they internally must decide to raise levels or lower them so that it sounds good to them.
There’s no barrier between the audience and the performers; they can get in amongst the audience and the audience can get in amongst them. And more importantly, if they wanted to walk up a hill to go look at something while they’re playing, they can do that and the crowd can follow them, and then they can walk back down again. We give them places to go perform, but if they don’t like it, there’s nothing that stops them from leaving, and they have in the past done that very thing!
So I would say that would be my feeling on the difference between this and a regular performance or music festival.
jhon: That makes a big difference: space and the use of space, and how that sets up the whole expectation or vibe of what’s going to happen and what’s even possible in that time and place. People are so used to going to just a regular performance venue where they’ll go and watch a band on a stage that’s elevated and above the crowd, who consume the event….
Tyson: They’re not participants.
jhon: Right, they’re not participants, they’re just taking it in. To be honest with you, the part of the weekend (of Honk Fest West 2012) that spoke most to me was Georgetown on Friday night because it was in the street, everyone was all mixed up together, sometimes it just got really crazy and blurred, they would circle up….you can do all kinds of things in a situation like that, you’re really without limit in that environment. It does make a big difference, given that you’re aiming to stimulate community spirit. I really appreciate that about what you guys do.
M.A.: Yeah, I mean you’re absolutely right. There are so many artificial boundaries that we experience in our life, and one great thing about Honk Fest –whether it be the one here or the ones in Austin or in Boston– is that it deliberately dissolves those artificial boundaries. So you’re talking about stages, space, you’re talking about ages and classes and races and sexes. You take down any cost barrier by making it free to the public, open to donations. You invite local businesses to participate as they will. And it just creates this very workable entity that can really become all kinds of things.
jhon: So as far as what makes it go on an infrastructural level, where does the money come from to fuel this“free” community event? How is it raised, and how much difficulty do you have with that or not?
M.A.: Speaking to the local area only, it’s a combination of grants, in-kind and fiscal sponsorship from businesses, individual donations, and sale of merchandise. Some of those donations come through a virtual, online fundraising campaign, some of them come through our fiscal sponsor in town called Shunpike which is a non-profit arts collective that sponsors local arts groups. So it’s this kind of distributed fundraising effort. Then we also have fundraising events –we had one back in February, we had one back in April.
And the response can vary a lot. You get some businesses that are like, “oh yeah, we love Honk Fest”, and yet that’s all we’re ever going to get from them. Then you get other individuals who are just donating year after year; they’re just dropping money in because that’s how they contribute to the festival. You get people donating like with the pizza party we had, 33 pizzas donated from 3 different pizza places to serve to bands and the public.
So the responses vary, and then I know that in the other two towns too –Austin and Boston, where the other Honk festivals occur– the responses vary. Austin for instance has a very close alliance with the local co-operative grocer, such that they take on the bulk of fiscal sponsorship every year. Boston just has this wonderful network of businesses kind of hewn around them that they’ve been approaching year after year after year because they always hold the festival in the same spot, and so it’s got kind of an immediate fundraising source.
jhon: And no corporate funding.
Tyson: No corporate funding. No exclusive sponsorships, no banners. We would like to thank you but along with everyone else who contributed in the sense of you may be a large company who contributed on a huge level but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better contributor than an individual who can give only fifty, a hundred dollars this time around.
jhon: I did want to ask about the history of Honk. I know that Honk Fest West is kind of a spin-off, right? It started elsewhere.
Tyson: We could get into the semantics of “spin-off”, but we took the idea from Honk out in Boston, out in Somerville, which has been going…is this their seventh or eighth year?
M.A.: This is their seventh year.
Tyler: Okay, so they’re just ahead of us. And they’re pulling from traditions in European nations that go way back….and M.A. can probably speak more specifically to that than I.
M.A.: So in Europe, festal culture is quite commonly expressed in fanfare festivals, especially in Central Europe and Eastern Europe. It’s similar to Honk Fest in the sense of it’s a bunch of community street bands coming together for performances in the streets. I can’t really speculate as to how strongly that influenced the folks out in Boston, but what I can tell you is that the members of the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society –which is a second line style community band based in Somerville– noticed that there were other kind of circus performance bands or renegade marching band sorts of things doing what they were doing elsewhere. And so they basically said, “well, you know what, we should get together and have a party for the people”. And that’s essentially, generically, third-handly how the idea was born in the first place. Tyson can talk really strongly about the origin of Honk Fest West and what its evolved into.
Honk Texas was kind of conceived after a visit to Honk Fest West by a bunch of members of the Minor Mishap Marching Band in Austin who said “we want to do this here”. I wasn’t yet a member (of Minor Mishap) but as you know I’d just come back and I was really high on it, and I said “I’m in, how do I help?”. And because it evolved in response to Honk Fest West and through a visit to Honk! Boston, it really kind of fused a lot of the differences into one festival that bears hallmarks of both.
There was also briefly one in Montreal, there still is a single day Honk called Pronk! in Providence that immediately follows the Boston one. There was a two-year run of one in Brooklyn called Bonk!
Tyson: And then there’s Hawaii….
M.A.: Oh right, and now there’s Honk! Maui, which is more conference than festival, but basically the principle’s enshrouded in the form of a winter vacation/conference/workshop. So, I mean who knows what that’ll turn into some day, I’d love to see 20 bands taking over Maui.
jhon: Can you describe what the first Honk Fest events in Seattle were like?
Tyson: Past years, let’s see. The first year, which I was not here for –I was not a part of the organization yet– was renegade and in the streets of Ballard. I’m not sure specifically where, and I’m not sure if anyone bothered to do the due diligence of telling anyone we were coming that first year. The second year we were back in Ballard, and then we hit Gas Works (Park) on Sunday for a picnic party/potluck out underneath the structure.
jhon: When you say “hit”, do you mean sort of impromptu and not really above-board and “official”?
Tyson: We did not have permits that second year. When I say “in the streets of Ballard”, I mean we were along the sidewalks of Ballard, and anyone who moved into the street was doing so at their own risk.
jhon: Do you know how many people were involved in those initial events?
Tyson: If we’re talking performers that’d probably be around 150-175, then we had 10 committee members and maybe 20-25 volunteers over the course of a couple days. It was very low-structure, very open, very raucous.
jhon: Was it a word-of-mouth kind of thing?
Tyson: Yeah, we didn’t have much in the way of promotion. We were partnered with Vera Project back in the day….do you know Vera Project at all?
jhon: No, tell me.
Tyson: Vera Project is a local non-profit that wants to teach youth from 8-18 how to do all of the aspects of music. So that’s promotion, that’s poster-making, that’s design, that’s stage-managing, sound, anything that goes into the running of the venue, which they have and will let their kids run. They also were our umbrella back then. Our posters came from their screen-printing class, the kids made it for us. So that’s where it started.
The third year, we finally got a permit to close down Georgetown for the first time. We went to Fremont, we also hit Central District that year.
M.A.: And West Seattle.
jhon: Of all of the events and venues that you’ve done thus far, do you find that some were more successful than others in terms of what you’re really trying to accomplish? Were people more easily roused or were people participating more under certain circumstances?
Tyson: I think all of them were successful but in different ways. Georgetown as you mentioned is great because it puts you right in the street, it draws everyone in because we’re basically taking over the thoroughfare where you don’t have much of a choice.
Gas Works is great because it’s nestled away, but we’ve been lucky and had two really great Saturdays where we’ve been out there and get families who just wander in anyway and it brings them in.
And the EMP Skychurch, I like the air of legitimacy and I like using the stage there to do a review, which is an idea that we’ve taken from Honk East out in Boston, to do a review of all of the bands –Austin does this too. I like that idea, I like that stage. I don’t know if it’s successful in the sense of a street band festival for that stage and that venue, but the fact that we get to go into the Seattle Center afterwards helps move us toward it.
M.A.: Especially this year, the turn out at Seattle Center was pretty amazing.
Tyson: It was fantastic. I think one of the reasons this year’s turnout was so good was because of the events of the week prior to. We had a lot of people who really needed that space and really needed that communal feeling of both silence and celebration. I think that we were just the medium on that one. I’m happy that we were there, I’m happy that that space was there for them, I’m happy to have been a part of creating that space for them.
jhon: And to that point, I know what you’re talking about but can you just explain for the readers outside Seattle what happened?
Tyson: So earlier in the week, the Wednesday before Honk (on May 30th, two days prior –jhon), five
people were shot by one guy, and two of those people were heavily involved in our local circus community; that would be Meshuguna Joe and Shmootzi the Clod –Drew and Joe– local cats, been around here and involved in the scene forever, wonderful, genuine, honest, awesome guys who everyone loves and no one had a bad word to say about. And their deaths, they were so random and senseless, it affected a lot of people in a really terrible way. So there was a lot of grasping for community in the wake of that, a lot of grasping for sense and rationality, and a sense of family. When Honk rolled around –because it had to, we had scheduled bands from out of town that came in that day. We had bands arriving the day of.
M.A.: And going out to the impromptu wake that was forming in front of Cafe Racer. The guys in Environmental Encroachment fresh off the plane joined Bucharest Drinking Team, Nu Klezmer Army and Orkestar Zirconium people who were already in spontaneous wake and solemn service.
Tyson: And then we made it known that we were going to do a couple moments of silence both at the start and the end of our festival. So when we started Georgetown we had a procession from the Hat ‘n’ Boots which began with a minute of silence; and then at the end, from the EMP out to the International Fountain there was another procession where we had a minute of silence. For me, because i was busy wrapping stuff up and wasn’t part of the procession, I walked up to the International Fountain to see this crowd of musicians and mass of people, inordinately silent, which was one of the most moving things i’ve seen in a good long time, and then they burst into music and walked around the grounds for a long time. It was great.
That moved me a lot and I think it moved a lot of other people, it was what they were looking for out of that gathering.
jhon: I think it shows something essential about the nature of a thing like Honk Fest; that a lot of the power comes out of spontaneous moments like that, things that can’t be planned or arranged in a program….they just happen. Would you have any more stories about things you’ve experienced like that?
M.A.: First of all, let me agree by saying abso-fucking-lutely. Spot-on. Like the party in the street at Adrian’s place…
jhon: This is the afterparty on Saturday night.
M.A.: This is the after-afterparty on Saturday night.
jhon: Talk about that.
M.A.: Well, so here are these bands that have been playing, and about a quarter to a third of these guys rolled over to Adrian’s place just up the street, which is an industrial area with no noise ordinance in effect, and just, um, kept on playing. It was in the street, no holds barred, everyone having a good time socializing and music playing.
There was a spontaneous drum-off in Austin this past year between Extraordinary Rendition Band with the guy Avi of Space Needle fame and Orchestra, which somehow or other led to a 4 a.m. street performance between Titanium Sporkestra and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. So you just get these sort of random, beautiful moments. The best part is, it means one thing to people who are doing it –the people who are creating that spontaneous moment– but to stumble across it or just to be following these people and to get caught up in it is a whole other form of magic. It’s just something amazing.
jhon: How much of these bands have the kind of carnivalesque element with not only people playing music but accomplices who are helping to generate the energy, whether they’re like stilt-walkers or clowning or whatever they might be doing? How much of that is a part of what we’re talking about?
M.A.: It’s become part of the backdrop for sure. We do see stilt-walkers, jugglers, acrobatics….
Tyson: That’s why I like Gas Works a lot; Gas Works really brings out the more SANCA (School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts) type people, we get a lot of those crowds. There’s a local fire performance group that meets every Wednesday out at Gas Works, so they’ll come out on Saturday for us and spin poi and whatnot. But it is, it’s part of the whole picture of the festival. It should be there. That’s why Environmental Encroachment is great, that’s why March Fourth is great, because they weave those elements in organically. And if we can get people to join us independently of the bands, that’s even better.
M.A.: Up in Boston, Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band will incorporate the Boston Circus Guild performers into their ensemble. And of course the Honk committee brings in a lot of the neighborhood performer troupes to intersperse with them, or just neighborhood groups in general, and encourage them to perform in some way or put on some spectacle. Down in Austin they brought in the Austin Bike Zoo both years in a row to parade, which is really fantastical wheeled contraptions, and also a variety of other performers interspersed throughout.
So it’s absolutely a part of things. You say carnivalesque, and that really is such a good descriptor. There is a circus atmosphere, it’s a musical circus.
Tyson: Last year we had a capoeira club show up randomly in Georgetown and do like a twenty-minute set. They never got in touch with us before or after; I don’t know who they were specifically, but they showed up and participated and it was great. One, it was spontaneous; two, they’re acoustic and mobile; three, they can very much operate in the street; and four, they heard about us and decided they would fit. We didn’t specifically extend them an invite but they felt welcome enough to take over the street with us.
Every year we try to extend the invite wherever we can, and if all I get out is that people are welcome to come out and do whatever they want to do with us, I think that’s lovely.
Many thanks to Wayne Worden and Espressobuzz for contributing their photography to this piece! Check out their photostreams on Flickr by clicking on their names. Also a big thank you to Michael Antares (who offered a photo as well) and Tyson Lynn for taking the time to talk with us!
For more information about all the various Honk Fests around the States, check out their websites (and keep an eye open in other parts for similar; i think we can expect to see more of this rolling out in the coming years!):
Boston (Somerville), MA: http://honkfest.org/
Providence, RI: http://providencehonkfest.org/
Austin, TX: http://www.honktx.org/