This weekend marks the 5th annual Honk festival in Somerville, MA, a celebration and gathering of activist street bands from across North America. These are the musicians who protest with instruments, costumes and rowdy improvised dance beats – the marching bands who put festivity into political resistance and a little bit of order into boisterous crowds. It is an often overlooked and yet vital aspect of protest gatherings around the world.
Street music as dissonance has a long history. It has traditionally been the space and place of outsiders – injured war veterans, disabled persons, migrant groups, minstrels, counter-culture buskers and more recently in the diasporic displays of calypso carnival or mela festivals. It has often been a performance within a context of limitations – economic barriers, cultural exclusions, even physical limitations on access to safe public space.
Not surprisingly, the forces of social order have long sought to control street musicians. In England, the Street Music Act of 1864 presented a thinly veiled xenophobic attack on immigrant musicians (primarily Italian organ grinders and German brass bands) who had taken to the streets as a way to survive in Victorian England’s rapidly changing economy.
In Ireland’s Troubled times from the late 1960s, a Parades Commission was established to control parades and marching bands of both Protestant and Catholic communities in a time where everything about the public performance of music was a politically charged gesture about territory, rights and expression.
Some of the earliest appearances of organized street activist music were in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s in England. The Omega Brass Band took its New Orleans-style jazzy marching into the streets to embolden the crowds campaigning for nuclear sanity.
The use of carivalesque strategies in protest became more widespread in the 1960s with Hippy and Yippy ‘happenings’ and ‘be ins’ and the theatrical politics of the Situationist International and the Diggers. But it was in the 1990s with Carnivals Against Capitalism – massive street rallies against neoliberalism and war – and the increasingly global responses to economic summits such as gatherings of the G20, WTO, APEC, etc. that street activist bands really came into their own as essential tools of protest — and, let’s face it, as tools of joy and festivity in the tension filled spaces of confrontation when encountering state authority in the street.
In East Vancouver it was the Carnival Band who always arrived to lead like merry pranksters the bodies of protest at marches. The music occupied a much larger space than the protest itself – acoustic space – sending out a rather enchanting if ambiguous message to onlookers and locals. And it had a way of transforming otherwise difficult and more often than not angry politics into something fun and even light-hearted.
The Carnival Band also had the almost (but not quite) unintentional effect of organizing a moving crowd. Like pied pipers for protestors, the Band would march and we would follow. The musicians kept the crowds moving and could lead them as needed in various directions. It is a rather sophisticated and gentle form of crowd control.
Activist street bands are an essential and yet not well celebrated element of contemporary protest and resistance. They reclaim public space – physically and acoustically – bring an inviting atmosphere to difficult political settings, help mobilize and move crowds through urban spaces and embolden and encourage activists.
If you are lucky enough to be in the Somerville area this weekend, check out the more than 30 activist street bands performing including Minor Mishap, The Bread & Puppet Circus band, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Environmental Encroachment –and many many more.
You can find a schedule and more info at Honk’s website.