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Pittonkatonk, Pittsburgh's Festival For Brass Bands And Street Music, Returns

Pittonkatonk, Pittsburgh’s music festival for brass bands and other acoustic street music, is back, but it will look a little different from years past.

The showcase is still free, and the location’s the same: the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion, in Schenley Park. And the music remains an eclectic mix, featuring everything from Balkan brass combos (like New York-based Novi Hitovi) and political hip-hop (New York’s Rebel Diaz and Pittsburgh’s own 1Hood) to Mexico City cumbia practitioners Son Rompe Pera. There’ll even be a set by perennial Pittonkatonk faves the Detroit Party Marching Band.

But thanks in part to the pandemic, Pittonkatonk will be a bit smaller — and a bit less communal — than before. Instead of audiences crowding around bands that roam freely under the pavilion’s roof, they’ll watch performers play on a temporary outdoor stage. And the big potluck picnic will be replaced by a lineup of food trucks.

The changes are due, of course, to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Pittonkatonk founder Pete Spynda joined organizers of most every other in-person festival in canceling Pittonkatonk last year, and didn’t feel comfortable putting it on for its usual seasonal slot in May (when it commemorates the international worker’s holiday May Day). In prior years, the grassroots festival has drawn thousands to listen to bands, peruse information from social-justice groups, and picnic on the pavilion’s wide lawn.

Now, with infections spiking again, Spynda is asking attendees to get vaccinated, and to wear facemasks regardless of their vaccination status.

“We’re just trying to be as responsible as we can,” he said.

Pittonkatonk's world-music flavor includes Combo Chimbita, which is based in New York but whose members have Colombia roots and play in a style they call “tropical futurism.” The group shares a basis in cumbia music with Son Rompe Pera, a five-piece driven by marimba.

“They’ve dedicated themselves to the marimba and traditional cumbia from all over Latin America, and so they play everything from traditional music from South America all the way to pop hits and contemporary stuff,” said Spynda, speaking of Son Rompe Pera. “Their T-shirts say, 'Cumbia is the new punk.' It’s kind of like the ethos of what we’ve been doing with Pittonkatonk all these years, by merging world music and punk ethos and punk esthetic.”

“Cumbia is the street music of Latin America, and I feel like it’s really important for that to be represented in the festival,” said Spynda, whose vision for the festival grew out of his work as a DJ who explores music from around the world.

Pittonkatonk is also an education group, and Spynda said Son Rompe Pera will actually remain in town for several days, to play at school and community events.

Other local acts include the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, a big band that plays jazz informed by world music, and Big Blitz, a brass-and-percussion jazz trio.

Pittonkatonk runs 4-11 p.m. Fri., Sept. 3. For more information, see the festival’s website.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: