Arts & Culture

PRONK! Festival promotes social activism through music

Marching bands from across the country parade Providence streets with elaborate costume and sound

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HONK! festivals involve bands with diverse social agendas and use music to get city residents on the street. The latest version of the local iteration of HONK! — PRONK!, or Providence HONK! — took place Monday around the city. Above, festival participants engage community members while performing on foot.

It was reminiscent of a calm before the storm. All sounds ceased, except a quiet buzz in the air as throngs of people chattered with tangible anticipation. Suddenly, the sound of approaching drums distinguished itself, followed by a chorus of horns. The somber autumn weather was no match for the brewing music fever that accompanied the arrival of the seventh annual PRONK! street jazz festival Monday.

“A lot of people feel this is going to be the greatest day of the year,” said Avi David, bass drummer for Extraordinary Rendition Band and a member of the PRONK! organizing committee. “A lot of people just live for PRONK!, and they love it.”

PRONK! — an outdoor music festival featuring bands from around the country — took the streets of Providence by storm from the afternoon into the evening. The festival included a wide array of brass-blasting marching bands, a drum circle and the traditional parade.

HONK!, the sister festival from which PRONK! descended, got its start a few years before in Somerville, Massachusetts. There, a brass band that engaged in an unlikely combination of anti-war protest and puppet theater came together in 2003 and began looking for ways to expand its influence in the surrounding community, according to the festival website. The band searched for other music groups with a similar philosophy of capitalizing on music’s potential to promote social activism, which triggered a wave of responses from bands across the United States. This enthusiastic response spurred the launch of the first HONK! Festival in 2006. That year, 12 bands originating from cities as diverse as Vancouver and New York performed in a marriage of spontaneity, creativity and music.

The national resonance of HONK! was quickly apparent — the following year, New York hosted its first HONK! festival, and in 2008 Providence followed suit, creating PRONK!, or Providence Honk. There are now similar HONK! festivals in Austin and Seattle, with ongoing plans to create festivals in Brazil, according to the festival’s website. Local bands Extraordinary Rendition Band, What Cheer? Brigade and Kicking Brass have each performed at PRONK! since its inception.

Seven years later, the Providence festival has remained true to its roots.

“We try to represent a variety of marching bands. Some of them have a larger social mission than others, so (we’re) trying to get a good mix of bands from different places and different activist movements,” said Jenn Harris, a communications projects coordinator at Brown and a member of the PRONK! organizing committee.

Unlike many music festivals of its kind, PRONK! does not block off city streets, allow commercial vendors or sell promotional paraphernalia. Instead, the festival emphasizes “reclaiming public space,” Harris said. Participating musicians carry their instruments and rely on natural projection, rather than amplification, to fill the streets with sound.

The 2014 edition of PRONK! began at 2 p.m. with performances — including a drum circle — in India Point Park. Around 5 p.m., a variety of musicians lined up for the annual parade down Wickenden Street. An hour later, the bands diverged to perform at three different stages around the city — the concrete hurricane barrier under the I-195 overpass, the Hot Club and an amphitheater next door to the club.

The marching musicians enraptured a diverse crowd along the parade route. Clad in bright, richly colored garments, hula hoopers, ribbon dancers and papier-mache animals drew the attention of both young and old in the audience.

Children along the route wore costumes ranging from princess outfits to Spiderman suits. Residents watched eagerly from their house windows, and teenagers perched on fire escapes to get a better view.

The music presented a mix of electronic beats, elements of hard rock and the fundamental jazz that started it all.

Pounding out beats, the percussionists demanded attention. The drums pulsed in nearly every song, creating rhythms from traditional bass drums as well as makeshift drums composed of Home Depot paint buckets played by children.

“We are reinforcing ideals, using music and getting everyone out on the streets together — to communicate and push the boundaries of what people think about activism and being able to translate that into something meaningful for them,” Harris said.

PRONK! — like its sister festivals — is independently run by local volunteers and draws thousands of spectators each year. The core organizing committee comprises 12 volunteers, including Harris, who is working with the committee for the second year. “I just happened upon PRONK!, and it just totally blew my mind,” she said. The committee functions democratically, without a designated leader.

Each band that performs at PRONK! attends at its own expense — while the committee must raise money to host the event, the bands are not compensated for performing, Harris said. The festival’s fundraising efforts, which included a Kickstarter campaign and several events throughout the fall, are directed toward feeding and housing band members.

“We are trying to build bridges and work with community organizations that are doing social action work, and helping to provide a platform for those organizations to use their voices,” Harris said.

“Our festival has a stronger activist undertone than others,” David said.

Harris said another factor that distinguishes PRONK! from its sister festivals is its greater focus on visual art even beyond the day of the festival. Funding from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts beginning last year has allowed PRONK! to assist artists who partner with local organizations like English for Action and the Providence Student Union.

The artists work symbiotically with the organizations, creating art to promote their message while the organizations give the artists a platform to showcase their craft. Citing this relationship, the coordinators emphasized the interplay between visual art and music in promoting social activism.

“It’s added this amazing visual element to the parade,” allowing bands to connect to local Providence organizations, Harris said of the funding. The modern face of the festival is in stark contrast to the festival’s early stages, which consisted of “all of these marching bands coming and bringing their own visual statements of what they’re doing,” Harris said.

PRONK! has also engaged with student communities at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. The festival coordinators held a forum on music and activism at RISD last week, David said. The festival has also been the subject of a two-week unit on using arts for social activism in MUSC 0040: “World Music Cultures” at Brown. The unit concluded with this forum, which David also attended with students from Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts.

“It was an open discussion and an opportunity for everyone to meet and connect, share experiences and ask questions to better understand why we all do what we do, how we do it, what drives us,” David said of the forum, adding that he hopes PRONK! will continue to develop its education programming “so that the bands can have a deeper relationship with the city of Providence and more people in the city can benefit from working with them.”

“In the last couple of years it has really started to get legs and people are starting to understand,” Harris said. “I would really love to see PRONK! continue to provide a space where more of the communities of Providence can come together to celebrate our victories, to share in this communal experience of music-making.”

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