Three-day HONK!TX showcases family-friendly street music
'It's not about money. It's not about sponsorship. And it's not about fame and glory, either. It's not about making it in the music industry."
Trudi Cohen is not talking about South by Southwest.
Cohen, along with 18 fellow members from the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band from Cambridge, Mass., is coming to Austin for the second annual HONK!TX festival of community street bands this weekend. She's one of the founding organizers of the original HONK!, which launched in the Boston suburb of Somerville in 2006. It has since germinated in Seattle, Providence and the Live Music Capital of the World — which, at least for a weekend, can possibly also proclaim itself the Unamplified Ambulatory Music Capital of the World.
"We pride ourselves on being a festival that doesn't have any stages," Cohen said. "You don't have anything plugged in, you have to be able to move around. That's one of the things that defines what a HONK! band is — you have to be able to walk."
In places from New Orleans to Central Europe to Brazil to the Balkans, street bands have long performed in public spaces for friends, neighbors and passers-by, and HONK!TX promotes the same kind of accessibility. Last year, groups played in Hyde Park, East Austin and downtown. This year, bands will strike up the music at Hotel Vegas and Volstead Lounge in East Austin on Friday night and at Spiderhouse, 29th Street Ballroom and Adams-Hemphill Neighborhood Park on 29th Street starting at noon Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, they'll parade from Pan-Am Park at East Third and Chicon streets to Republic Square Park for a revue.
Jason Fialkoff of Austin's Minor Mishap Marching Band, a founding member of the HONK!TX organizing committee, said community involvement is key. That means engaging a wide range of ages, and not just those in the prime club-hopping demographic.
"Austin's real lucky to have the music festivals it does, but they talk about it being the live music capital, and a lot of times, when I go out, I don't see a whole lot of minors, or children, I don't see a whole lot of seniors or retirees," Fialkoff said. "So to come out on a Saturday to Hyde Park and see 8-month-olds, see 8-year-olds dancing, and see seniors out with lawn chairs ... We really feel like we're helping fill a niche that, for whatever reason, is overlooked in Austin."
The mission of HONK!TX is "building community through music in our neighborhoods," Fialkoff said. He characterized it as a true community effort, organized by a committee of about 10 this year with help from a number of other volunteers and support from local businesses such as Wheatsville Co-op, which also got behind the first festival last year.
"We're thankful they'd partner with us again, and that we'd get that community support," he said.
Members of Minor Mishap started talking about an Austin HONK! after participating in the Boston-area and Seattle events, and other Austinites bought into the idea as well. The HONK!TX concept was formulated in the summer of 2010, Fialkoff said, but the team of organizers was still coalescing and the real planning didn't get under way until around that December for the March 2011 extravaganza.
"A few of us were committed enough that we wouldn't let it go away," Fialkoff said.
While a professional event planner might blanch at the thought of pulling together a three-day, multivenue festival featuring 20 bands from across the country in such a short time frame, the inaugural HONK! was a similarly organic effort, according to saxophonist Ken Field, one of two professional musicians in the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society. He played at the first HONK! with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, a band that he leads, and was moved to serve on the event's organizing committee in subsequent years.
"I was cynical, to tell the truth, about the festival, because it seemed kind of not so organized and I just didn't think it was going to all come off. It just blew me away that it totally did, exactly the way it needed to be done, with the right combination of organization and just letting things happen the way they happened," Field said. "It clearly took a huge amount of work, and after the first year, I felt kind of guilty that I'd played at it but didn't put in the work that the organizing committee did, so I volunteered to be on the organizing committee and asked if I could join the band, the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society."
Field has been thrilled to see HONK! offshoots spring up in other cities. "Part of the idea of the festival is, while it's nice to have bands from all over the world coming to your town, it's not necessarily so carbon-friendly to do that, so to have more localized festivals with more local people is cool."
At the same time, HONK! events help build bonds between musicians, professional and amateur alike, from across the country, who travel largely at their own expense.
Fialkoff said: "We're really lucky to have this network of musicians, and when we go to Boston, they find places for us to stay, feed us and do what they can to make us feel at home. And the same thing happened in Seattle, and we do our best in Austin to present the same atmosphere, and say once you guys get down here, we'll take are of you as best we can. We're really lucky to have restaurants that donate food, and Austinites who have opened their doors and let people sleep on their couches. It's just a wonderful thing to see come together."
The HONK! events in each city have a slightly different emphasis. The Boston event, for instance, is more politically oriented, while HONK!TX, Fialkoff said, is "developing community as a form of activism, putting community before any kind of political sentiment. Which really is enough to be political, apparently. It's funny that way, but it seems to be the case."
Trudi Cohen explained that her band formed out of a group of independent musicians who initially came together to play at marches against the Iraq War in 2003.
"After we'd been playing a couple years, we wondered if other bands around the country had formed for similar reasons, with an activist mission as their roots, and we did some exploring and found a bunch of bands around the country who sort of fit that profile."
Although HONK! bands share a sense of purpose, they represent an array of influences, from New Orleans-style brass bands to klezmer to Afro-Brazilian carnival blocos. And Cohen said the groups range from "mission-based" bands that play only for causes they believe in to ensembles that primarily play paying gigs but "understand the potency of street music for social change."
"The age diversity in bands is something that's also quite pleasing," Cohen said. "Ours has people who are 21 and people who are in their 60s. Part of it is just the size of these bands — you can have that huge range when you have 30 people."
She doesn't know exactly how many people are in the Social Aid & Pleasure Society, which has been expanding.
"We were active in the Occupy Boston movement, especially in the fall, and we got three new young members out of that. They saw us and said ‘We want to play with you.' "
Fialkoff said the HONK!TX organizers are pleased about the range in this year's lineup, which includes Austin's popular Academicos da Opera samba school and members of Reagan High School's funky Soul Raider Marching Band, among others. Visiting groups hail from Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Madison, Wis., and Lexington, Ky., as well as New England.
"Our band is excited to come to Austin a second time," Cohen said. "We were impressed to see what the folks in Austin were able to pull off. ... There's a movement growing, and we want to support it any way we can — and also have a good time ourselves!"