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March madness

Fifth annual Honk! Festival a blast of brass and activism

The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band rehearses at a Somerville church. The Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band rehearses at a Somerville church. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / October 8, 2010

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Perhaps the most joyous moment of this weekend’s Honk! Festival, the fifth annual gathering of brassy street bands in and around Somerville’s Davis Square, isn’t listed on the official schedule of events. Two members of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band will be getting married Saturday.

“I’d like to make Honk! a wedding destination,’’ said Dylan Foley, Emperor Norton’s bass drummer, who is engaged to Sara Honeywell, the group’s accordionist. Bandleader “Handsome’’ Chuck Lechien will conduct the service.

The wedding is undeniable proof that brass bands of all stripes — whether from a Mardi Gras second-line parade, an old-fashioned traveling circus, or your high school alma mater — bring people together. In its fifth year, Honk! has inspired the formation of several sister festivals and many more fledgling street bands, as well as dozens of new recruits joining existing groups.

“It just looked like so much fun,’’ said Seth Wochensky, cofounder of the two-year-old Springville All Star Marching Band, which will travel from its rural hometown in western New York state to participate in Honk! a second time. A few years ago Wochensky, a filmmaker, was in Portsmouth, N.H., for a film festival when he stumbled upon the city’s Leftist Marching Band in the street.

To Wochensky, their music was “so pure.’’ After playing for some time with a struggling rock band, he was about to become a parent and was growing tired of the club scene — “playing bars, hauling sound equipment, all the machinery of it.’’ So he went home, borrowed a sousaphone and began enlisting friends for his new marching band.

Groups due to appear at this year’s festival are coming from as far away as Austin, Texas, and Oakland, Calif. Styles range much farther, from the Haitian celebration music of New York’s DJA-Rara and the heavy samba percussion of Boston’s own AfroBrazil to the wild Slavic punk of Chicago’s relatively compact (five- or six-piece) Black Bear Combo.

Though the Leftist Marching Band, as its name implies, is one of several groups committed to political causes, the Springville All Stars are not particularly activist, said Wochensky. The Honk! Festival, which began as a form of war protest, has grown to embrace any musician who just wants to kick up a little noise.

“It stunned us all, how positive the public response was’’ in the first year, said Trudi Cohen, an original member (with her husband, John Bell) of the festival’s de facto hosts, the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band. “You think something’s radical, but it turns out everyone loves brass band music.’’

At a recent Tuesday night rehearsal amid the empty, well-polished pews of Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville, more than a dozen band members of various ages and backgrounds practiced their version of the traditional “Never Gonna Let You Go,’’ reading from sheet music. Newcomer Shaunalynn Duffy, a 23-year-old with a ring through her lip, said she hadn’t played her clarinet since high school wind ensemble.

“In the same way that it’s very empowering to play music in your basement, this feels very personal,’’ she said. “It’s rare to have an unproduced but still high-quality experience like this in public.’’

A few nights later, 13 Emperor Norton members crowded into the front two rooms of the Somerville flat shared by saxophonist Eric Mumpower and his wife, violinist Johanna Bobrow. Already jammed with books and musical instruments, their shelves overflowed with half-full mugs of tea, coffee, and beer.

The lineup included three trombones, three saxes, two tubas, two bass drums, one trumpet, one accordion, and one junk percussionist. They kept the windows closed.

After wrapping up the session with a delirious version of an original avant-jazz composition, the band members gathered their belongings while Handsome Chuck made a few announcements.

“Things that are not acceptable in your costumes: jeans, T-shirts, sneakers,’’ said the saxophonist, wearing glasses with red frames and his long hair pulled up into a tuft. “No ballcaps, either.’’

“What if my jeans are made of mizzen sail canvas?’’ joked one member, who answers to the name Mr. Squirrel.

When the members of the Springville All Stars, who range in age from 16 to 60, arrived at last year’s festival, they were overwhelmed by the spectacle, recalled Wochensky.

“What a scene! All these bands in uniforms, with freaky hats and hairdos. It was band-geek heaven.’’

His group, which has built a repertoire including classic Dixieland tunes and covers of songs by Balkan Beat Box and the Daptone label’s funky Budos Band, is still groping for its target sound, he said.

“Style is irrelevant,’’ said Wochensky, on the phone from his Springville home. Much more important, he said, are the reasons street bands and carnivalesque music have grown in popularity in recent years: “Maybe it’s a bit of a reaction to the electronic world we live in. Maybe it’s the loss of community across the board.’’

When the All Stars played an arts and crafts festival in Amish country recently, the looks of astonishment they received were well worth the commitment.

“It took 10 or 15 minutes for their jaws to come back up,’’ Wochensky said.

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.

THE FIFTH ANNUAL HONK! FESTIVAL OF ACTIVIST STREET BANDS

At: Various locations in and around Davis Square, Oct. 9 and 10. Free public performances Saturday from noon-9 p.m. Parade from Davis Square to Oktoberfest, Harvard Square, noon-1 p.m. on Sunday. All bands will perform in concert at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Somerville Theatre. Tickets $10. www.honkfest.org