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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

At the Scene of the Crime (in which Our Hero Becomes a Rover and Lives to Tell About It)

By on May 17, 2009

Image by bunchofpants via Flickr

Tonight I joined the Scene of the Crime Rovers, Durham’s own honk band.

“Joined” might be putting it a little too formally. Basically, I showed up at a practice and at the end mentioned that I would definitely be coming back. There was much rejoicing. “Most people leave during the break,” one member told me.

As I explained in some previous posts (links below), honk bands are grassroots collections of musicians, usually in urban areas, who play together for the sheer joy of making a joyful noise, as well as making some noise for some good causes.

Some of these bands are more polished and practiced than others, but most like the SOC Rovers (properly pronounced “sock rovers” I learned tonight), emphasize true amateurism: doing something for the sheer love of it. While you need to have some basic ability on an instrument (really, knowing your basic scales seems to be enough), more important is a disposition toward communalism and tribalism as well as a psychotic need to be a fool in public.Let me try to give you a feel for the practice I just attended. I arrived right at the 7 p.m. start time to find a small group of the regulars chatting outside the practice space. (Practices are held on the grounds of the Durham Farmer’s Market, but when it is too cold or rainy–like tonight–we meet in The Scrap Exchange, a recycled goods store.) Eventually someone opened the door to the shop and we shuffled into a craft classroom in the back. Everyone was excited to find an array of gourmet snacks laid out, sent as a thank you from a downtown strawberry festival the band played at a couple of weeks ago. “No strawberries?” someone observed regretfully.

The practice is as much social gathering as it is rehearsal. Ample time is given for conversation before, at a mid-point break, and after. It became quite clear that whatever other roles music plays in the life of a honk band, its ability to bring people together is prized above many. The instrumentation of a honk band is built around things that make lots of noise (percussion and brass in particular), but diversity is encouraged. Tonight, in addition to several drummers and a healthy brass section, we had a tenor sax, a flute, a glockenspiel, and my contribution: melodica and mandolin.

Once we got our instruments in hand, we got down to playing. And with the Rovers, “playing” carries all of its connotations. More used to the tight arrangements and raised expectations of bands I had been in in the past, music as play was a new experience, but one I could easily become addicted to. Improvisation is highly encouraged, and the key signature is often just a gentle suggestion.

socr-bc_whiteMost of the “songs” we practiced are really just collections of patterns. As Captain Barbossa said of the pirate code, the written music “is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” In some cases, there aren’t any notes written down at all. Instead, the “song” is built around a game. In one, called Cobra, the director (which could be anyone in the band at any particular time) uses a set of hand signals to bring in various instruments and tell them what she wants them to do. She might point at three or four and signal them to build a base (a continual, short vamp). Others may be directed to play a solo, or sometimes the whole band is directed in stacatto “chords” (read, squawks). Resulting sound: think Charles Ives meets The Stooges (punk band, not diminutive comic pugilists).

The amazing thing is that somehow it works. The result isn’t exactly music in the strict Western sense, but it is folk music in the purest sense. It is music happening uniquely in the moment. Though at first it might sound like mere cacophany, it is soon apparent that something deep and even a bit mysterious is happening. There is a kind of intense, communal listening that takes place. Your own squawking begins to merge and make sense with the honking around you. Something emerges that is–well, beautiful might be too hasty a judgment, but it is kind of awesome.

If you want some idea of what this sounds like, here’s a video of the SOC Rovers live from two years ago. An example of “Cobra” (mentioned above) starts at about 2:15:

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So…I had a great time, met some cool new friends, and have found an outlet to participate in the local community (major goal for me upon moving to Durham). In the weeks to come I will try to chronicle life as a Rover, as I move from practicing member into performing member at some gigs scheduled soon.

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