“I look at HONK NYC as my love letter to New York City,” says Sara Valentine, steward and chief curator of the exuberant, gleeful street-band extravaganza. Each October since 2007, some 200 musicians, hailing from as far away as Russia or as nearby as Queens, gather for a week of jubilant performances, parades, and workshops in venues, parks, gardens, galleries, and clubs across the five boroughs, taking the city by foot-stomping, hand-clapping storm.
The festival grew out of a small 2007 dinner party at the Change You Want to See Gallery, held by the ensemble Valentine is part of, Hungry March Band, for The Pink Puffers, who were visiting from Rome. Both bands had just played the original HONK! Festival in Somerville, Massachusetts, and it seemed natural to find some gigs for the traveling band to play while they were in the States. Now, 10 years later, HONK NYC is an integral part of an international network of brass-band festivals that take place each year from Texas to Detroit, from Rio de Janeiro to Wollongong, Australia. The highly anticipated NYC extravaganza, which remains fully artist-led and volunteer-run, has partnered with arts and culture organizations all across the five boroughs and into New Jersey, including Ariana’s List, Gemini & Scorpio, Island Voice, the Jersey City Office of Cultural Affairs, Maker Faire, More Gardens, Rubulad, and WFMU Radio.
The festival is a microcosm of the whole vast world of street bands, having included groups playing everything from Haitian rara to Dixieland jazz to Balkan brass to Salvadoran batalá. “There are all these different street traditions that happen around the globe,” Valentine says, “and they all happen here in New York. I want to honor that diversity. As a curator, being able to build bridges across cultures through music is incredible.” And she certainly has: The decade of HONK NYC has seen New Orleans second-line funk, an all-female Brazilian percussion group, a jazz-grunge ensemble, Sufi folk songs, Latin bugalú, and on and on.
HONK NYC is deeply dedicated to an ethos of community. When Hungry March Band toured Europe, their hosting bands found them all places to stay, so Valentine replicated that with her festival: Since its inception, HONK NYC stewards and volunteers have managed to house all visiting performers for free — in beds, on couches, and sprawled out on floors across the city.
Although Valentine does the vast majority of the work of putting on the festival herself, she’s supported by a small organizing committee that has always been nearly all female. “That wasn’t intentional,” she says, “but I realize that it’s a powerful thing. We’re setting examples for other women who want to do work like this.”
Valentine has been influenced in many ways by her own community and family. “Both my parents were circus performers,” she says, “and my mom used to put on a huge fair in our town every year. I don’t ever remember her not doing it, and I don’t ever remember not helping her. Her community-based model of entertainment, connectivity, outreach, and neighborhood-building is what I base my festival on to this day.”
HONK NYC has grown each year, encompassing more kinds of music, more cultural partnerships, more venues, and always more and more musicians. There is now a regular Harlem night, a Jersey City day, a Staten Island afternoon, and plenty of planned and impromptu shows all across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. “These artists see more of NYC in one week than most people see the entire time they live here,” Valentine says.
And each year, the festival is full of surprises and delights — a parade through Times Square, a pop-up performance in Washington Square Park, a roving spectacle through Lower East Side community gardens, a rollicking blowout finale at a loving underground space in Bushwick. Watching the incredible energy of the musicians being met by the jubilant fans is endlessly thrilling. “I like any moment that disrupts the order of what people are expecting,” Valentine says. “I also like any moment when the boundaries between the performers and the audience members disappear. And I like moments when the artists find new ways of collaborating right on the spot.” Year after year, HONK NYC provides all of those thrills — and many, many more.