If you’ve ever visited the Pittonkatonk May Day Brass BBQ Potluck Picnic, the fifth annual incarnation will be broadly familiar: Bands playing outdoors for free in Schenley Park, with plenty of food and a family-friendly atmosphere. It remains volunteer-run (though musicians are paid), and free of corporate advertising and of anything for sale – all rarities for a long-running music festival.
But even if you’ve been to the picnic before, you’re in for a treat. This year’s lineup of about 15 bands is likely Pittonkatonk’s most diverse, with groups and styles rooted in Africa and New Orleans, Latin rhythms and hip-hop, as well as its signature genre of Balkan brass.
“We’re trying to grow Pittonkatonk so it’s … not just one type of voice,” says Pete Spynda, a DJ, music promoter and educator who’s a co-founder and co-organizer of the event.
The picnic’s always been musically varied. But this year, in additional to touring stalwarts like Providence, R.I.’s What Cheer? Brigade and the Detroit Party Marching Band, and Pittsburgh regulars like the May Day Marching Band, Col. Eagleburger’s Good-Time High-Stepping Band, and Brazilian percussion ensemble Timbeleza, the line-up has an even deeper world-beat flavor.
Visiting acts include Kaleta & Super Yamba Band, hailing from Benin and New York City; Mdou Moctar, from Niger; Gaiteros De Sanguashington, of Washington, D.C.; and Chicago-based Esso Afrojam Funkbeat. Other Pittsburgh-based performers include world-fusion group Afro Yaqui; hip-hop collective 1Hood Media; drum-and-sax three-piece Big Blitz; Drumlines & Hard Rhymes, which blends African drumming and rap; and the brand-new group Bombici, which puts an electronic spin on traditional music from the Balkans.
The bands range in size up to a couple dozen musicians.
Pittonkatonk, Spynda notes, is more than just the annual picnic; it also does educational outreach year-round in the Sto-Rox school district and elsewhere. But the picnic is its keynote event, last year drawing a crowd that Spynda estimated at about 3,000 over the course of an afternoon and evening.
The picnic’s vibe is perhaps singular in Pittsburgh. With no stages, and no amplification required, many of the bands perform while roaming through attendees spread out on the lawn of the park’s Vietnam Veterans Pavilion, snacking off of full plates of potluck fare while kids play ball off on the side. (Things get a little wilder later in the evening, Spynda says, when the bands cut loose.)
In terms of scale, but not spirit, it’s a far cry from Pittonkatonk’s roots as a Balkan-brass dance party Spynda hosted with What Cheer? and other groups in 2012, in a friend’s six-car garage in Highland Park, for some 150 guests. After attendance more than doubled the following year, the Pittonkatonk picnic was born, organized by a committee including Spynda, musician and music professor Rich Randall, Stephanie Brea, Stephan Koledin and Rosemary Barton.
The festival draws heavily on the Balkan-brass revival in the U.S., which has been tied to protest movements dating to the late 1990s. Balkan-brass groups – whose roots lie in 19th Century Eastern Europe – are loud, anarchic and fun; ideal for protest marches, they’re also mobile, and, perfect for rallies, they don’t require PA systems.
“They’re kind of like punk bands playing brass instruments,” said Spynda.
There are obvious links also to high school marching bands, including instrumentation – and the fact that lots of the musicians were in their high school bands – but the repertoires differ considerably, and most brass-revival groups eschew matching uniforms and synchronized routines, to name two big differences.
Brass-band festivals are common in Europe. Stateside, the first big brass-revival festival was Honk!, launched in Somerville, Mass. (near Boston), in 2005. More followed, including Honks in New York City, Seattle, and Austin, Texas. (“Pittonkatonk” is a Steel City spin on “Honk,” Spynda says.)
“It’s really inspiring to us that this movement has taken on a life of its own,” says Ken Field, a longtime organizer of Honk! in Somerville.
Some fests, including the original Honk!, are more explicitly about social activism – as are groups like Pittsburgh’s May Day Marching Band, a fixture at rallies including the city’s Labor Day parade and the Immigration March. Pittonkatonk, said Spynda, is mostly concerned with building community in a space that’s equitable and welcoming. This year’s event, however, will include a “social resource tent” tabled by social- and environmental-justice groups.
Spynda called Pittonkatonk “a city-wide family reunion.”
That informal feel extends to the festival’s organization. Its only income is by donation (including a crowdfunding campaign), and much of that money goes to pay musicians. Visiting bands are put up at volunteers’ houses.
Many of the bands are similarly democratically put together. The May Day Marching Band, for instance, formed nine years ago, practices weekly and plays up to three dozen gigs a year, says co-founder Scott Gibson. But anybody can join, and group members share duties including suggesting material and arranging songs, which vary from old Afrobeat numbers to medleys of tunes by Chilean activist songwriter Violetta Parra, and even a song by political punks Crass.
Focusing on all original material are groups like Drumlines & Hard Rhymes. The band was assembled by local musician and producer Herman Pearl, who plays bass drum alongside musicians on hand drums and snare, backing up emcees Lyn Star and FRH.
“Growing up, going to events like Kwanzaa, and being around African drums, I always had respect for that,” says FRH. “So it’s always cool for me to kinda step outside my world as an emcee and kinda bring two worlds together.”
Also blending the traditional and the contemporary is Bombici, a brand-new band that’s kind of a local supergroup, featuring Pittonkatonk co-founder Rich Randall (who plays a drum called a tapan), saxophonist Ben Opie, and guitarist Colter Harper. The five-piece plays material from Western Bulgaria and Macedonia on electro-acoustic instruments with electronic processing.
“It’s actually the opposite of what a Pittonkatonk band was originally thought to be,” says Randall.
But musical labels are less important at Pittonkatonk than the spirit of the event, and the overall experience as a non-commercial venue where guests can enjoy community as well as tunes.
“They’re not walking into a venue,” he said. “A door doesn't shut behind them. They don't need a ticket to access a particular area, and stylistically that it's going to be a rich and diverse crowd because primarily we're looking for musicians that can activate groups.”