October 10 will begin like any other Friday in Somerville’s Davis Square, as leaves turn to red and the smell of fall fills the air. But as the weekend progresses, residents might find themselves hearing trombone honks, trumpet bleets, and the cheery sounds of voices chanting. That weekend, the annual Honk! Festival, now in its ninth year, takes over Davis Square with its colorful celebration of activism and community spirit, presented in the form of twenty-seven wandering brass bands.
“The initial purpose [of Honk!],” explains Ken Field, an organizer of the event and member of its founding band, the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, “was to have all of these bands get together in one place and meet each other and hang out and play together.”
For Field and the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, it was a revelation for the band to find out nine years ago that there were others like them, bands who also borrowed from the traditions of marching bands and New Orleans brass bands and merged them with an ethos of progressivism. “It’s not really your average type of band…Bands like this are doing what they do in their own communities, without [otherwise] having contact with other bands like that.”
The first year of the festival had a total of twelve bands, and the number of participants – both bands and observers – has only grown since. As many as thirty-five bands, many of them with over twenty members, have played the festival at any one time. This year’s Honk! includes plenty of New England-based bands, like Burlington, VT’s Brass Balagan or Northampton, MA’s Expendable Brass Band, along with others coming from more far-flung locales, including Moscow and Paris.
It’s a festival that wears its politics on its sleeves. “Every Friday, we lend our musical energy to a local peace vigil,” says Becky Lieberman of Olympia, WA’s Artesian Rumble Arkestra. Like many of the bands playing at Honk!, they make a special effort to include political messages in their performances and often lend their energies to events and rallies that they support. Past appearances for the band have included a “New Orleans funeral” held after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, “for the death of fair elections.”
“Honk! in Somerville is Mecca for us,” says Lieberman, whose band has also played at regional Honk!s in Seattle, WA and Austin, TX. “We love playing for the socially just…and the just social.”
For Les Muses Tanguets, an all-women brass band from Paris, it was an international encounter with the founders of Honk! that convinced them to make the pilgrimage across the Atlantic. “During a festival in Rome organized by [the Italian brass band] Titubanda,” explains Anne-Sophie Cramoysan, the band’s president, “we met the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band. They suggested we come to the next edition of Honk.” The band, composed mostly of architects who met during school and who try to present an alternative image of women in entertainment, was founded in 2004, and will be making their first Honk! appearance this year.
Honk!, which has gained the support of both Somerville’s residents and local government, will run from Friday, Oct. 10, to Sunday, Oct. 12, with the first day dedicated to a “day of action” that includes lantern making workshops and a musical kickoff at Johnny D’s nightclub in Davis. The event, which continues on Saturday with performances on the streets of Davis, is free to the public, and concludes with a Sunday parade beginning in Davis and ending in Harvard Square.
For its all-volunteer organizers, the fact that it has successfully introduced so many bands to each other is payment enough. “The primary goal is to have a positive impact,” says Field. “It’s really kind of an amazing program.”