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In Conversation With: Ken Field of HONK! Festival

by Kaylie Felsberg

Photo courtesy of Flickr

14 years ago, the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band was born in Somerville and with it came the chanting, singing, dancing-infused HONK! Festival that has blessed the streets of Davis Square ever since.

From October 11-13, over 20 activist bands — hailing from as far as Germany and Brazil — will parade the sidewalks and plazas with their infectious musical stylings. We talked to Ken Field, a member of the HONK! Organizing Committee, on how the Festival continues to thrive and why residents need the event more than ever.

To participate in the Festival’s Pickup band or volunteer, click here.

BUZZ: How do you select the bands for the Festival? Do they come to you or vice-versa?

KEN FIELD: The first, maybe 12 years of the festival, the bands always came to us. It then changed a little bit — we started inviting bands we knew about. A lot of bands came and wrote to us saying “I’d love to play your festival.” We would invite as many bands as we could and sometimes, we couldn’t invite as many as we wanted.

We began to make the evaluation of whether the band was an activist one and what their motivation in attending was. The committee also took into consideration whether we knew these people and if they were a part of our “family” for a number of years and had been to the festival. We tried our best to invite bands that would represent different communities; in terms of gender, race, and age.

Fast forward to now and we have an application process set up which has made it easier to manage this whole thing. [The Festival] announces the application somewhere around the beginning of the calendar year, and people who to attend, as a band apply.

BUZZ: On average, how many bands attend the Festival?

KF: We’re extremely limited by our own bandwidth, so we always get way more people applying than we can have at the Festival because everybody on the committee is a volunteer and we all do other things.

We’ve sort of limited it 25 bands. A couple of years ago for our 10th Anniversary we had 0 bands and it really was stressful because we house all the bands too — we find housing for all the bands and feed them as well.

BUZZ: An aspect I love of the Festival is that it’s completely free because you can easily charge $20 for it. I think it definitely encourages people to come out — was this always a core value for the committee when planning the Festival?

KF: We think of this Festival as partly a music festival, but partly a gather of bands — sort of almost a conference. These bands come and it’s a gig for them really. It’s not like we don’t have a budget to pay all the bands what they really deserve, but we treat it — and the bands — as a gathering. At the same time, everybody loves to play. [The bands] want to make music and they also want to express their values at the Festival.

On one hand, we raise funds through Kickstarter, through Business Outreach, and through some other government support — we have a little support from the city of Somerville, for example. But we basically don’t raise enough money to pay the bands and we want to keep the Festival free because we want everyone to be able to appreciate it.

BUZZ: What is the main concept of the Festival?

KF: We want to encourage people to be activists, and by activists, we just mean to be active and take action. Not be passive and just watch the world go by. By making the Festival free, we’re encouraging people to see what these community-based bands are doing. A lot of the people in these bands are regular people with day jobs and they play an instrument at the same time. People who attend might be inspired to do something like that or something totally different, but to take action in the world and do something they think needs direct action.

BUZZ: We’re living in dystopian times, no question about it. Do you think the concept of the Festival has become more crucial as we enter a new decade?

KF: Absolutely — without question. We’ve always made the distinction between calling it a “festival of activists” versus an “activist festival.” We’re a festival of bands that do activists work and as a Festival we, for years, didn’t do anything specific. Recently, we have been doing specific things. As a Festival, we’ve been organizing, coordinating, visiting bands, and putting them together with local organizations that want to make a statement during that weekend — whether it be having an event or rally.

For the past couple of years, I think its four, we have been visiting the Ice Detention Center in Boston to play for the people who are being held inside from the outside. They hear us and it’s extremely moving. The committee has been doing things to raise awareness about specific issues this year and we’re raising awareness about housing issues on a number of levels: access to housing, affordable housing, environmental concerns which impact the place we all live on.

BUZZ: It kind of brings to mind the phrase “think globally and act locally.”

KF: Definitely, definitely. We don’t want to overstate out impact — we don’t think that we are changing the world in a large way. But the Festival is changing the world in a small way — a positive way that is. The bands who may be a little less involved in politics are, partly by attending the Festival and hanging out with bands who are more involved, are being nudged in that direction. We even see some of the other Festivals that weren’t so focused on activism deciding that’s a role they want to take on.

It has to do with the growing community and the almost, I don’t know, maybe even eer pressure within the community.

BUZZ: The Festival is going on 14 years. What makes it so contagious?

KF: The response we get to the Festival is just so extraordinary — people says it’s the closest thing to Mardi Gras they’ve ever seen outside of New Orleans. There are a couple things that make it amazing.

We try to make this a Festival that involves everyone and build a community. It’s not just the musicians — part of the idea of housing band’s in people’s private homes is that there are friendships formed. Members of the community that housed bands have become members of our community because they get to know the people in the bands. We have businesses that help feed the people. The Festival involves the business community, partly because we don’t sell vendor space, there aren’t craft wagons and there’s nothing with that, but that’s not what we do.

As a result, the musicians go into the local business, as does the audience. Everybody’s involved and participating in this event.

BUZZ: Why do you think you draw in the bands you have?

KF: The bands themselves and musicians are doing it to be a part of this community — to hang out for the whole weekend. They believe deeply that the music they’re playing can have this positive impact on their community. That passion is a passion for something other than just making money.

The people who come and experience the festival, even if they don’t, they might not know that these are bands that are activists. They might dig the music or scene, but it comes across, maybe subconsciously, that there’s an energy there that you don’t always get at the other kinds of events.

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