Banding Together in Northampton: The Expandable Brass Band (2014)

This documentary follows the Expandable Brass Band of Northampton during the spring of 2014. Founded in 2010 by trumpeter (and professor of public health) Fred Hooven and percussionist (and then-Hampshire College student) Iris Arieli, the Band is an intergenerational group of brass and percussion players from across the Pioneer Valley who come together to make music and support social justice. Inspired by the activist street bands featured at the HONK! Festival in Somerville, MA (in which the group takes part each October), Expandable Brass brings raucous spirit to parades, road races, fundraisers, fairs, and other community events, both in- and out-of-doors, year-round. A co-operative, the band has no official musical leader and no permanent home. Instead, responsibilities are shared among the group members, who coordinate the logistics of music, rehearsals, performances, and publicity, with the help of a central website, maintained on a strictly volunteer basis. No audition is required to join; the only requirement of membership, a serious commitment to the band. The atmosphere is decidedly informal, and the group’s weekly rehearsals feature a rotating cast of players, as band members balance EBB with other musical, professional, and personal time commitments. This is not to say that membership in the band is something to be taken lightly, and discussions in rehearsal frequently become heated. Irregular attendance can mean missing out on voting rights, as band members show up to find their favorite song changed or even gone from the group’s repertoire. Despite the inevitable conflicts, the group members share a remarkable sense of camaraderie and purpose. Ranging in age from seventeen to seventy, the group includes a high school student, a professor, a carpenter, a doctor, a music teacher, a storekeeper, an MRI technician, an opticians, a salesman, a psychologist, an engineer, a librarian, and several retirees, to name a few, from Amherst, Plainfield, Northampton, Florence, Easthampton, and all over the Valley. Whether warming up together for a gig or relaxing over a drink afterwards, the band is a fun, lively group.

 

While making it clear they preferred my presence as a trumpet player than as a documentarian, the band members were incredibly warm and welcoming as I followed them to rehearsals, into their houses, onto the stage of Northampton High School, and outdoors, on a rain-soaked street corner in Holyoke and a sun-drenched lawn in Northampton, where they played at fundraising events to support their communities. Many of them graciously agreed to submit to my questioning, and I ended up with more fascinating stories, more jokes, more heartfelt affirmations of the value of community music-making than could ever fit in one film. This film, then, purports not to be any kind of “authoritative” document—rather, it is an expression of my own work with the band. As a brass player myself, working with the band has been a blast, and a hopeful sign for the rebirth of community brass band culture in New England, which has been on the decline since its heyday in the 19th century. The EBB gives this culture a new twist, and more generally, whether cheering on runners at a road race, making music with disadvantaged children, or marching in the Northampton Pride Parade, the Band embodies for me the positive power of music to bring people together and bring about social change.

 

One Response

  1. Hilary
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    What a band, what an informative documentary. I’ve been following this band for years and I learned many things I never knew about their origins, the M.O.Z band mom role, and their complex form of government.

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