Street Bands Strut in High-Spirited HONK! Parade

Street Bands Strut in High-Spirited HONK! Parade

By Karen Klinger

They came from across the United States as well as Canada, activist street bands on parade and on a mission, as their motto says, to "reclaim the streets for horns, bikes and feet."

And so they did, October 10, during the annual HONK! Parade, as dozens of groups of musicians, community and human rights workers, environmentalists, puppeteers, and others, including the odd politician, marched from Davis Square in Somerville to Harvard Square where this year's Oktoberfest was underway and some of the bands joined in the performances on the multiple stages scattered around the square.

The parade was part of the three-day 5th annual HONK! Festival (HONK! is not an acronym, just an odd name for an equally idiosyncratic event) that began with some of the bands visiting Somerville schools and ended with a multi-band "blowout" at the Somerville Theater. In between, the bands performed at various locations around Davis Square.

From a modest beginning five years ago when a dozen bands joined together to perform over Columbus Day weekend, HONK! has become something of a phenomenon, attracting dozens of bands this year to Somerville and Cambridge, and also spawning like-minded events elsewhere in the country, including Providence, R.I. (PRONK!), Brooklyn, N.Y. (BONK!), Austin, Texas (HONK! TX) and Seattle, Wash. (HONK! FestWest). Organizers say in their mission statement that while the bands sometimes gather to "protest, they also perform to celebrate the causes and institutions they support: multicultural festivals, peace conferences, social forums, artists' collaboratives, community gardens, block parties, neighborhood fundraisers, relief benefits and homeless shelters."

But in every case, they say the "HONKERS' ultimate goal is to have fun, to relish the art of making fun as a form of individual and collective transcendence and to encourage others to do the same." Judging from the crowds that gathered along the parade route on a picture-perfect fall day, they accomplished their mission.

The names of the bands alone reflected their eclectic nature, ranging from the "Feed & Seed Abominable" from Atlanta to Portsmouth, N.H.'s "Leftist Marching Band" and the "Environmental Encroachment" out of Chicago, as well as the "What Cheer? Brigade" and the "Extraordinary Rendition Band," both from Providence. Among Boston-area bands, there was the "Dirty Water Brass Band," Somerville's "Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band" (self-described as "the most talented deadbeats and drifters that could be rounded up") and the "Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band," also from Somerville.

The 15-piece Second Line band describes itself as a "raucous, stomp-your-feet-and belt-out-the-choruses" New Orleans-style street band. Its purpose: "We aim to please if the cause is just and the time is right," which might fairly be said of all of the bands which took part in the parade and festival.

Among the other groups in the parade was the "Bread and Puppet Theater" based in Glover, Vt., an organization dating to the 1960s, when members were active in anti-Vietnam War protests. Over the years, it has garnered nationwide recognition and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Its performers have also become known for using enormous puppets such as the giant figure representing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement they brought to HONK! (they also brought a "Ship of Fools" sort of float.)

A Somerville organization named "Sprout," which says it is devoted to "community-based learning, teaching and investigation of science" brought another large installation to the parade, a rolling wooden contraption that was …well, interesting and certainly worthy of a Rube Goldberg-like designation. Whatever it was, or was supposed to be, you couldn't miss it.

One of the largest contingents was led by Amnesty International and dedicated to the "Free Tibet" movement, with costumed dancers and marchers waving Tibetan flags and carrying a banner that said, "Free Dondhup Wangchen," referring to a Tibetan filmmaker who was sentenced in December, 2009, to six years in prison by Chinese authorities after conducting interviews with his countrymen about China's occupation of Tibet. His footage was smuggled out of the country and subsequently made into a film titled "Leaving Fear Behind," which has been screened in more than two dozen countries.

All in all, this year's HONK! seemed to live up to the mix of activism and fun that organizers like to think would gain the approval of a movement forebear, the author and anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). In words often attributed to her, Goldman supposedly once said:

If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.
A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
If there won't be dancing at the revolution, I'm not coming.

Even if she didn't say that, it's easy to think that a anti-establishment figure such as Goldman would have enjoyed the 2010 HONK!


Karen, this story is great! I didn't know HONK! had spawned so many other such festivals. I caught Saturday's performances, but had to miss the parade so I am grateful for this story. Thanks for the thorough research and great pictures.