HONK! Pedagogy: A New Paradigm for Music Education?

By Garofalo, Reebee | Radical Teacher, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

HONK! Pedagogy: A New Paradigm for Music Education?


Garofalo, Reebee, Radical Teacher


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The HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands (honkfest.org) is an independent, grassroots, non-commercial weekend festival held each fall in Somerville, Massachusetts. From the nine hours of free performances on Saturday by 350-400 musicians comprising two dozen or so outrageous and unruly marching bands, to the mammoth Sunday parade down Massachusetts Avenue to "reclaim the streets, for horns, bikes, and feet," this is not your average music festival. It is a moving (in both senses of the terra) spectacle of colorful marching bands, gigantic puppets, creative bikers, jugglers, hoopers, flag twirlers, and stilt walkers, interspersed with unions, activist organizations, and community groups, which never fails to move the bodies and put smiles on the faces of the few thousand people who join the fun.

HONK! represents one visible tip of a substantial underground of alternative street bands that encompasses large parts of the globe and dates back decades. The original HONK! Festival in 2006 codified this growing movement, gave it a name for the new millennium, and provided its main point of convergence in the United States. Because of the success of the Somerville festival, HONK! has begun to spread to other locations, including Providence, RI; Brooklyn, NY; Seattle, WA; and Austin, TX.

HONK! bands represent a new incarnation of a time-honored tradition when there were marching brass bands in most every town and hamlet in the land. The deep history of HONK!, however, extends much further back in time and parallels the tortured historical role of military brass and drums in colonial conquest and religious conversion. Indeed, in the period leading up to the twentieth century, it is fair to say that the first exposure to brass band music for most people in the world was probably from an invading colonial army or an evangelizing Christian mission. (1)

The military tradition of brass band music has continued to live on in formations like high school and college marching bands, often deployed in sporting competitions pitting rival teams against one another. Beneath the surface, however, there have long been powerful inversions of these tendencies that are far more subversive and potentially liberating. As empires crumbled, brass instruments began to find their way into indigenous rituals, often in clandestine circumstances. Military and religious ensembles became secularized, giving rise to civilian bands whose members adapted their exacting military training to local popular musics to create new transcultural hybrids. In this way, the tools of subjugation were repurposed in the service of self-expression, community service, and cultural development. "Listen to enough brass band music," says scholar/ journalist Josh Kun, "and you start to hear the history of the world handed back to you in a horn section. Suddenly, Serbia and Romania could be the alternative birthplace of Brazilian frevo; brass flurries from Gypsy bands in Macedonia and Bulgaria could be lost cousins of the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band from India, the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin or any New Orleans jazz troupe." (2)

The processes by which these mostly amateur bands operate are studies in the way street bands are formed and led, how new members are recruited and nurtured, and how musical repertoire is developed, learned, and disseminated. It is my contention that a closer look at these processes can provide an alternative model (or complement) to traditional music education. This paper, then, is an embryonic attempt to articulate the values and techniques that comprise what I call HONK! pedagogy.

To develop this analysis I have made use of an extensive survey conducted by bass drummer, scholar, and HONK! stalwart Michele Hardesty in 2007 (3), I have scanned the relevant literature on the subject (such as it is), and I have conducted hall a dozen in-depth interviews with practitioners who were suggested to me as being among those on the cutting edge of HONK! …

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