In Davis Square on Columbus Day weekend, an eclectic blend of bands will fill the streets and fill the air, blasting melodies and weaving through the neighborhood. In its seventh year, HONK! will reign over the Somerville hub for five days — and as usual, it will be loud.
The HONK! Festival is a celebration that gathers activist street bands from across the nation and beyond to bring awareness to meaningful causes and, above all, set a live soundtrack for an entertaining event. The idea for the festival came from the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band (SLSAPS), a local band that formed under the pretense of supporting Boston’s first Iraq war protest.
“It was impromptu,” says longtime SLSAPS trombonist Kevin Leppmann, adding that the majority of bands involved with HONK! also materialize spontaneously. “[We were] unhappy with conventional protests with no uplifting sense. [We wanted] to turn that around and make protests more active and audience-involved events.”
After three years of livening up campaigns, the members of SLSAPS wanted to branch out even further. “Our band’s motto is, ‘We aim to please if the cause is true and the time is right,’ ” said Leppmann. A marked increase of activist street bands in the mid-2000s motivated the SLSAPS troupe to seek out like-minded musicians. They successfully gathered 12 bands in Somerville for a weekend filled with free music and a fun atmosphere.
HONK! was born.
“It’s like walking into a Dr. Seuss book,” said Leppmann of the whimsical atmosphere. “We essentially create an alternative universe right there in Harvard Square, right there in the street. You’re seeing something magical [because we set up] right in the middle of everyone’s everyday life where there’s usually business, and we turn it upside down. It’s an extraordinary experience.”
He wasn’t the only one captivated by the festivities. Since its 2006 creation, HONK! has spread across the nation at an infectious pace, with a presence from Austin, Texas, to Seattle to Brooklyn, N.Y. “All these groups in other cities have made it their own, but have kept to the general flavor of keeping it a grass-roots, community-organized festival,” said Leppmann. “Truly homegrown; that’s the HONK! way.”
While HONK! is expanding countrywide, the original Somerville-based festival has also ballooned. What started as a 12-band gig has exploded into a celebration featuring 34 acts, hailing from Somerville to Italy. The largest Somerville HONK! yet is slated to sprawl across nine venues in Somerville and Cambridge neighborhoods, featuring a primarily free array of outdoor concerts, a large parade and smaller processions, indoor concerts, and a symposium.
“It’s gotten a lot bigger,” said SLSAPS saxophonist Ken Field. “We’ve learned a lot through the years about how to do these things. [But it’s still] a totally noncommercial event, it’s all about the music, the bands, and the audience.”
The high-energy festival was initially created to raise awareness of sociopolitical and activist issues, and while that mission remains, it has transformed into something more.
“It’s not folk-music protest songs. Some are directly related to issues, but most are not,” said Field. He added that a large chunk of the audience isn’t drawn out by the social activism, but by the quality of the production. “A lot of [our spectators] are not — nor do they need to be — aware that this is a festival of activist street bands. It’s just an incredible spectacle of music.”
Featured bands have various platforms, ranging from hard-hitting political and socioeconomic stances to the simple aspiration to “take back the streets,” like Tony Randazzo of Minneapolis-based Brass Messengers. “I don’t know that there’s a shared political vision as a group, but we all share this desire to see folks take over and take back street life. And Somerville HONK! is so well-organized and put together. The way they’ve created these little nooks and stages on the street is really amazing.”
Leppmann said that not every band has an explicit activist motivation, but they all have the drive “to play for free on the street. Most of the bands have a mission that’s different from most bands. They’re playing for the fun of it, [and] to play for free in the street is a goal in and of itself.”
The HONK! Festival blurs the line between audience and participant, and encourages observers to become doers. And performers hope that notion will remain, even after the HONK! celebrations wind down, in Boston and elsewhere.
“[It’s a] rejuvenating time to get together, but also to really share the kind of political work we’ve been doing around the country, and seeing where social movements overlap,” said Lily Paulina, trombonist for Rude Mechanical Orchestra, based in New York. “We get a lot of inspiration out of seeing and listening to and talking with bands from around the country, remembering that other folks are doing similar work that we’re doing.”
Field said if HONK! encourages people to get off their chairs and take a more active role in improving society, it’s succeeded as a festival.
“The genesis of this festival is that people become activists to take action to improve their world, instead of sitting back, watching TV, and complaining,” he said. “When we say, ‘activist street bands,’ we mean they’re getting out there and doing something to be helpful. Whether that’s writing a letter, voting, or even posting something on Facebook — it’s just something that helps.”Jessica Teich can be reached at email@example.com.