12/8 Path

How to Organize a Path Band
[printable version - adobe pdf]

There are lots of clues to organizing in the other three documents and I hesitate to suggest any single plan of action since it is not clear yet that any of the organizing and launching I have done to date (June 2000) has been sustainable. The Buffalo 12/8 Path Band keeps rolling along, but the startups in New York City, Boston, Toronto and Seattle are still “startups,” not “steady” yet, may even be getting “stuck” for one reason or another. Rehearsals are not so regular or gathering momentum in the four cities, so I’m tempted to take some words I heard from Elvin Jones a few nights ago on the radio very seriously. The Coltrane Quartet never rehearsed. Never ever. The best polka bands never rehearse, or do it only for a new album. If the musicians are ready to play, want to play, have people to play for, why rehearse? Better to play for people in public regularly and get better with each performance. In Boston and Seattle we did a workshop one day and played in public the next day. People danced. Band members were happy playing for and with dancers, joining a crowd at an anti-bioengineering demo or parading around campus to find some action. It works.

So when is the next demonstration? Where are the dancers? These are the questions to ask. Who wants to go to the demo and/or the dance space in order to up the energy and connect with people? Calling rehearsals may be how not to organize a path band. Better to find gigs, blend with events, find or invent excuses to assemble and play -- this is probably the heart of leading and organizing. I know there were a number of times in Buffalo when I had to organize an event or a Green “dance alive”myself if I didn’t want the bands I played in to get stale or simply disappear. You, yes YOU, can also call a band to a demonstration that, at this very moment, only you want to have happen. Play at a fundraiser for someone whose politics you like? or play on the front lawn of an uncaring corporate headquarters and pass out slingers saying what they do? play outside the supermarket where they don’t label the food as bio-engineered? Or ask people to jam downtown and pass the hat for your favorite do-good organization. Greenpeace. Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch. Cultural Survival. Rainforest Action Network. Etc. etc. They all need fun-raising and fund-raising. (Just don’t call it “a rehearsal”.)

There are a lot of ways to be mobile and inclusive. A mariachi group with a few beginners or children in it could be a path band. I can imagine a charanga/pachanga type path band with 3 or more violins, flute, maybe a trombone or two, supported by strolling timbalero, bell, a guiro player. Pennywhistlers and small percussion? “Crawdaddy-Oh” in Tuscon is a hot five piece brass band that could be on the path the minute they go outdoors and invite a few others to play with them. Ditto for the “Live Action Brass Band” in Austin a few years ago. A path band is any bunch that wants to stroll and invite other players in. So start strolling and inviting. See “Why Not a Path Band” for the spirit of starting all by yourself and adding people one or a few at a time.
The basic or “classic” model I have in mind has the following minimum ingredients:
1) a dynamite snare drum/bass drum combination, two people who already know how to groove in samba and new orleans 2nd line traditions, enjoy playing together, can anchor conga, funk, salsa, 12/8 rhythms easily as band repertoire grows;
2) two solid trumpet or cornet players to punch lead melodies and riffs;
3) at least one trombone or baritone sax to do bass lines.

An optimum band, not too small, not too big has:
1) snare and bass drum pair
2) bell player (or two)
3) shaker/guiro/tambourine pair who dance some, invite people into their “section”
4) drummer on light conga or jembe or portable timbales or ?
5) two trumpets
6) two trombones
7) two saxes
8) doubled bottom -- sousaphones, tubas, trombone and baritone sax, bass trombones?

When the first international brass band movement was at it’s peak around 1900 the photographs show bass drummer with cymbal, snare drummer and 6 to 10 horn players, 10 to twelve people about average band size.

Numbers for critical mass: In this era you need a list of about two dozen versatile players who “know the book” to be sure of having a good turnout of ten or a dozen. If you are at the not-so-versatile stage you probably need 30 players on the list. You need eight to twelve drummers backing each other up at all four “positions.”

Back ups at all positions: Who is currently “first chair snare”? Who backs up? Who can you call in a pinch if neither snare one nor snare two can make it? Does the hot solo jembe player really know how to play surdu or bombo parts when the regular bass drummer can’t make it? I’m always surprised when a good drummer or horn player can’t play the shaker part, or stroke a quiro, but in a steady or functioning path band all the horn players need to get good at small percussion (positions 2 and 3 in the four position rhythm section scheme above) and drummers need to be ready, willing and ever more able to do any of the four positions AND learn to play a horn so as to fill out a section when there are too many drummers and not enough horns. Four trumpet players on the list? Four trombonists? Call four to find two. If three show up that’s wonderful.

More than one leader: Greg Horn, my main trumpet partner in Buffalo, always has a cowbell on his belt, knows how to play it, knows all the bass lines or trombone parts so that he can start any tune with a trumpet or a bell part or a bass line. I always have an agogo in my belt and can start us three ways or play percussion whenever my lip is shot. Who will print up cards? Who will send in monthly notes to the website publication PATH TIMES (starting up in August)? Who can pull a section together and think up new riffs for it?
Balance: A big, healthy percussion section fills in the middle of many tunes, gives lips a rest, keeps the party going, makes it easier to move from place to place. But “too many drummers” or too many with rock volume norms in their heads make it impossible for sax soloists to be heard in anything but the upper or pig squeal register. Horn players may stop coming when they realize they may never be heard as a soloist but only in a section. To my ears, we never quite solved the balance problem in Buffalo; always hard to lower the percussion volume without slowing down the tempo, grooves getting soggy.

Echology: Why did brass bands “go extinct” in some cities but not in New Orleans? Maybe in order to have one path band in a city you must have two or three or more working in friendly competition. People in a band cooperate better within the band in order to compete more effectively with other bands. Why get into funny hats or feathered costumes if there are no other pranksters with horns or “indian tribes” to be crazier than? When is it time for a successful and growing path band to split into two bands? We seem to be at the early Dictyostelium discoideium (cellular slime mold) stage of path band evolution in which the hungry single cells or amoebae “aggregate into a multicellular slug that can move about quite independently. When the slug stops moving, a fruiting body forms with densely packed spores. This eventually bursts apart, the amoebae are distributed, and the process begins all over again. . . the single amoebae communicate by secreting an attractant whose concentration grows as more and more cells come into contact with it.” (J.A. Scott Kelso, Dynamic Patterns 1995: 14 and see page 8 for the basics of “self organization”). In this model I’m a spore or an amoeba from the Buffalo path band secreting an attractant web site.

At a more complex level which of the four community building praxes -- paganism, politics, poetics, pedagogy -- holds the most pull or promise for motivating band members to stay on the path? These broader purposes of path bands are off to the side or in the background much of the time so far, but it may be that there is really no reason to organize and maintain a path band unless a few people are deeply motivated by one or more of the praxes.

We haven’t figured out How To Organize a Pathband with any foolproof formula yet. But Buffalo’s 6 years of steady growth, promising starts in Toronto, New York City, Boston, Seattle and sessions that may have planted a few seeds in Trondheim, Norway and Olympia, Washington, have all given me the firmest possible conviction that it is easy to make a start. It is very easy for anyone to start up a band like this almost anywhere. So give it a try and tell us what happens. It will lift everyone’s spirits if a path band or two springs up from people visiting this website, liking the idea and taking the first steps, or transforming an existing band and giving it a more mobile and inclusive vision/version of itself.

Check out the Why, Why not? and Plenty of Path for Everyone documents. Print out and pass around. And let us know what emerges in your locality.

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