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Review: HONK!ers make the right kind of noise

HONK!ers on the move

Photo by Sasha Patkin.

Musical street fest
Oct. 7-8, 2023

A ring had formed in Davis Square. In its center, a woman sang into a bullhorn while a row of trombones behind her seemed to lean into their music, taking steps forward as they played. They closed the gap with members of the surrounding crowd, who were also banging their heads, dancing to the music, and unconsciously marching closer to the musicians, until it became hard to tell who was who.

That was the scene as HONK! Fest took over Somerville this weekend, with polka-dotted sousaphones, LED-adorned trumpets, purple trombones, painted tubas, and even a lone banjo pumping a Mardi Gras-like spirit into the streets.

Musicians and their supporters donned nonconformist, slightly punky, sometimes fantastical, anything-goes outfits. A man leaned out of a nearby apartment to watch the down below, smoking a hookah from his window.

HONK! describes itself online as "outrageous and inclusive, brass and brash, percussive and persuasive." Even on an otherwise rainy and dull Saturday, it created such an amazing energy pulsing through the square that it turned the area into one giant street party.

The event featured "activist bands," or bands that are in some way socially engaged, either through outright political protest or community building. This year saw over 30 bands from across the country gather to perform and celebrate.

It was hard not to get swept up with all of the call and responses. The bands wove through the crowds; spontaneous dance parties seemed to be erupting everywhere. The air was filled with crowds shouting "Tubthumping," by Chumbawamba (“I get knocked down, but I get up again /You're never gonna keep me down,") Woody Guthrie's "All You Fascists Bound to Lose," and cries of "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"

The event was more than just good vibes and an empowering spirit. I was impressed by the quality of many of the bands, which played music ranging from Britney Spears to what sounded like ages-old protest songs, klezmer, jazz, hip hop, and everything in between.

Arts and activism were also present in many forms as actors from the Bread and Puppet Company performed a surrealist play outside of a painted, reappropriated school bus, volunteers carried orange, Halloween-like buckets as they collected money, and a man walked around with a petition to raise the minimum wage for service workers.

The weekend included a number of HONK! events, including semi-official, Pre-HONK! Performances in Union Square on Thursday night, a pick-up band rehearsal, various performances, a lantern-making workshop and a lantern parade Friday night, an interactive art making and activist open street on Saturday, and a songwriting workshop and the HONK! Parade from Davis Square to Harvard Square on Sunday.

Scenes from the parade on Sunday

The parade was filled with unexpected delights. Marchers held signs with messages like "Save Ocean Life," "Veterans for Peace," "Clean Air = Healthy Kids," and "Mothers for Fossil Fuel Free Future." A huge four-legged puppet by the Bread and Puppet Company marched along, people rode by on modified bikes, a one-man band marched past, marchers dressed as fish to save Alewife Brook, and others walked by simply waving or smiling.

It's a simple but effective concept: Nothing brings a group together faster, amplifies their voices, and makes their presence known better than music. A loud band can break the silence, sound an alarm, wake people out of their day to day experience, lift spirits, and raise up a clear message of solidarity within a community.

Especially with the amount of burnout that comes with the effort that's involved with activism, staying engaged in politics, or building community, it's especially powerful to reinvigorate movements with art and music and make them empowering and celebratory.

In a world filled with cacophony, HONK! aims to make the right kind of noise.

More photos by Greg Cook.

Review from the Independent Review Crew.

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I miss the marching bands that used to march down Washington Street under the old elevated Orange Line in the summer. Was it really public schools taking away funding for the arts that changed all that? And what happened to the seemingly impromptu steel drum concerts in Mattapan? Was that just part of Summerthing:The Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs sponsored neighborhood gatherings from way back when in the 1970s?

Voting closed 9

Marching band is a huge time sink and given how many kids are in organized sports and other extracurriculars, it's really hard to get enough committed. And unlike sports, a missing kid in formation can't be covered.

Voting closed 8

Many years ago I was riding to work early on Saturday morning when I encountered a Harvard marching band that marched out of a courtyard and into the road for a few blocks. They were playing and it was fun to ride behind them.

I really wanted to go to work and say, "Sorry I'm late, I got stuck behind a marching band."

Voting closed 13

On experiencing another standout contribution* from Sasha I have a question about the Independent Review Crew: are reviewers paid for their contributions? This isn’t clear from the info on the IRC site. The work is certainly deserving of professional compensation, even if contributors have day jobs elsewhere.

*That photo of marchers all decked out in red blasting away has made me indescribably happy.

Voting closed 17