A musical revolution with a groove laid down by um-pah-pah-ing tubas and buzzing snare drums is marching through clubs and spilling into the streets of Ballard, Georgetown, and here and there around Seattle this weekend, April 10-12, during the second annual Honk! Fest West.
The 18 bands set to play at Honk! come from cities across the United States -- from Boston to Portland -- and they look and sound as diverse as the cities they represent. They're brass bands and drum lines; they play klezmer, Balkan gypsy and Brazilian carnival music; they march in formation, out of formation, in front of an audience and scattered within it. Some hula hoop while playing, many dance, still others lay down beats for choreographed samba dancers; some are professional musicians, others aren't. All, according to the festival website, are "radical marching bands."
One of the bands getting ready to Honk! radically this weekend is Seattle's Yellow Hat Band. The 15-member band of horns, woodwinds, and percussionists plays music from around the world, loudly, often in the streets. "What we like to do is bring music to the people," says Yellow Hat Band tuba player and Honk! organizer Gary Luke.
"With a stage, sometimes you feel separated from the music," he continues. "So we don't always play on a stage, and we don't always get paid. We play on the level of the people. So we'll just go out into the park and play for people so they can hear our music without putting money up. There's no class association, you know, we're about total access. When the audience starts clapping or dancing, they become part of the show."
Many of the bands at Honk! take it to the streets for little or no money. They also play benefits for nonprofits, political rallies and in places and ways that are otherwise unusual or unexpected. Renegade Seattle drum line Titanium Sporkestra has been known to crash bars, hot dog stands, and pound out military style beats for hungry hoards at Dick's drive-in. When President Obama was elected, they joined what seemed like half of Seattle in a celebratory march through the city.
Not all bands, though, carry an overt political message. "As an event, Honk! Fest West isn't political," festival organizer and Titanium Sporkestra drummer David Stern says. "We're not taking a right- or left-wing stance. We're just kind of trying to provide a place for bands that, if they choose to protest, they can come to our festival. What we're really about is bringing people together, getting people away from their TVs and computers and out in the streets to party with their neighbors."
Some participating groups, like the Seahawks Blue Thunder Drumline, perform in more traditional arenas, like football stadiums. "We have really explicitly political bands and we have marching bands, and I think that's so cool" says festival organizer and Yellow Hat Band french horn player Stefanie Brendler. "The Seahawks Drumline, they make noise to get people excited. I mean they honk! That's what they do to get people riled up. Whether it's getting people riled up for a game, or for a political rally, that's what it's about."
Honk! Fest West will celebrate music's radical ability to galvanize people and build community -- around political issues, sporting events, neighborhood celebrations and the right to have fun and play loud music in the streets. Really loud music.
"I recommend people bring ear plugs," says Luke. "People get excited and the bands just get super loud."
The celebration begins on Friday when 300 musicians from 18 bands will play four venues in Ballard. Saturday, musicians will attend workshops. One workshop -- a Honk! Pick-up Band rehearsal -- begins at 2:30 p.m. and is open to the public. In the evening, Honk! moves to four more venues in Georgetown, and concludes on Sunday with a free, public performance at Gas Works Park in the afternoon and an all ages show at the Vera Project in the evening. Like the music of the participating street bands, the Sunday Gas Works event is all-inclusive, and anyone with an instrument is encouraged to show up and participate.
And will the bands take it to the streets? "You know, what might happen [in Ballard and Georgetown] is the bands might accidentally spill onto the street and play," says Luke. "You know, we don't want to break any laws, but if people want to protest or party in the streets, that just might happen."
Honk! Fest West is a nonprofit event run by volunteers. All of the 300 hundred horn, woodwind, and percussion players at the festival are provided with food and a place to stay. They just have to get here which, for bands from Chicago or Boston, is no small commitment. Any admissions fees taken at the venue doors help pay the way for Honk!'s itinerant musicians.
Kevin Leppmann, organizer of the original Honk! Fest in Boston, MA, is traveling to Seattle this weekend with his band Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band. "Honk! is first and foremost a celebration of the ability to be spontaneous in music-making" says Leppmann. "I see us as imbedded in a larger movement to reclaim public space for public spectacle. I'm just so excited that there's another one of these things around. People shouldn't have to wait a whole year to have this much fun."