Pittonkatonk festival brings Balkan brass bands to town
“I felt like it was time that we gave Pittsburgh its own festival.”
When Pete Spynda discovered Balkan brass music a decade ago, it was a personal revelation. “I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been searching for my whole life,'” he says. “I was just struck.” Since then, he’s worked to bring others the same experience, first through the long-running global-music dance night Pandemic and, more recently, bringing live Balkan brass bands to Pittsburgh.
On Sat., May 3, Spynda hosts Pittonkatonk: A Pittsburgh May Day Brass BBQ. Modeled loosely on similar festivals in other cities — Honk in Boston and Pronk in Providence (Pittonkatonk is a localized play on those names) — the event features eight national and local brass ensembles.
The Pittonkatonk lineup represents the genre’s variety. A band like Chicago’s Black Bear Combo, for example, tends toward the traditional, while Detroit Party Marching Band and Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade — with 30 and 18 members, respectively — bring in elements of contemporary pop, ’90s hip hop and jazz. Spynda describes locals C Street Brass Band, a group of CMU students, as “virtuoso musicians,” while the May Day Marching Band has a niche playing political events, like protests. In the future, Spynda would like to expand the range further, including some New Orleans brass or even a high-school marching band.
“If I was 16, 17, in the high-school marching band and heard this kind of music,” he says, “I think it would have changed my whole opinion on brass music, on what you can really do with it.”
While Spynda has hosted similar events in the past, this is the first time he’s put together something of this scale. “I felt like it was time that we gave Pittsburgh its own festival.” He set up an Indie Go Go fundraising campaign to help cover food, venue fees, travel costs and other expenses, but ultimately, Pittonkatonk is a labor of love.
“I wanted to raise awareness of this type of music and get people out to kind of celebrate that,” he says. “Pittsburgh has a lot of Eastern European roots, and I wanted to tap into that, to say, “Hey, there’s more to this style of music than just polka bands and bingo.”
Brillobox & Vietnam Veterans Pavilion (Schenley Park)
May 2 & 3
5 p.m. & 3 p.m.
Cambridge has Honk, Providence has Pronk and now Pittsburgh has Pittonkatonk Brass Festival.
The brainchild of Pittsburgh-based DJ, promoter and designer Pete Spynda, the lively two-day festival kicks off on Friday, May 2nd at Brillobox, with a May Day Music and Labor Roundtable from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Free and open to the public, the discussion will explore a wide range of topics, from how labor issues impact musicians locally and globally to DIY practices and the Internet’s problematic relationship with musicians.
Six panelists will share diverse opinions and experiences and then open the discussion up to the audience. Presented by The Center for Arts and Society, The Listening Spaces Project and Pandemic, the discussion will be followed by a free party featuring performances by MC Boogat (Montreal) and DJ Pandemic Pete (Pittsburgh).
Pittonkatonk turns up the volume on Saturday, May 3rd, with its main festival attraction at the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion in Schenley Park. Part music festival, part grassroots potluck and family BBQ, Pittonkatonk boasts an impressive lineup of local and national bands bringing the brass. Free and open to all ages, the concert starts at 3 p.m.
Featured national acts include the Providence, RI-based 18-piece brass punk band What Cheer? Brigade, a Pittsburgh favorite which blends traditional Balkan brass with samba, hip hop and Nola sounds; the funky 27-piece Detroit Party Marching Band, who are just back from a tour of Europe; and the Black Bear Combo, a prolific 8-piece Balkan brass ensemble from Chicago, IL with with roots in the Pittsburgh area.
Representing the home turf will be the high-octane samba group Timbeleeza; Pittsburgh’s favorite parade collective, the May Day Marching Band; C Street Brass featuring musical talents from Carnegie Mellon; and the festive Colonel Eagelburger’s Highstep Goodtime Marching Band.
Pittonkatonk is run by a dedicated crew of local volunteers. To support the event and get involved, contribute to the festival’s Indiegogo Campaign.
The monthly installment of Pandemicis poppin’ off this Friday and in true party spirit, we thought we’d ask the night’s head party guru and curator, Pandemic Pete, a few questions about this reputable and eccentric dance night that happens the first Friday of every month at Brillobox. Each month you can count on the fact there will be at least 100 sweaty twenty somethings dancing their toes off to the point they can turn the room’s temperature up into the 90s even on a frigid January night. We wanted to learn about the event’s origins, history and what Pete’s plans are for Pandemic in the future. Here goes.
Kymbo Slice: Can you tell us about the history of Pandemic? How did it come about? How long have you been doing this party? Has it always been at Brillobox? Have you always been the primary curator or do you ever have guest DJs?
Pandemic Pete: The idea for Pandemic started in the late summer/fall of 2005 with Justin Hopper, Caulen Kress, and myself. We were all in bands that shared a practice space downtown and started talking about the idea of a (I hate this term but) world music dance night. Then my band played a party in the NY Gypsy Festival at the Mehanata Bulgarian Bar. After the bands were done, Dj Joro Boro (a frequent Pandemic guest) spun an amazing mix of Gypsy, Bhangra, Chalga, and Cumbia. My mind was blown and I knew when I got back to Pittsburgh I needed to stop talking and actually do it. The Brillobox had just opened and we approached Eric with the idea and he was all for it. Somehow 6 years later we are still at it. Juddy and I are the primary DJs, but he misses a handful of months a year gallivanting around the world as a writer/poet/vagabond of sorts. When he is absent we have invited other local and national/sometime international DJs to hold it down in his place.
KS: How would you describe your musical selections to those who have never attended a Pandemic party?
PP: At first I used the term world fuck music, but I don’t know if the other guys formally approved of that description. Juddy recently came up with the label “DRINKING, DANCING, STOMPING, YELLING” which kind of describes the night pretty well.
KS: Any time I’ve been, Brillo’s upstairs seemed to be particularly sweaty. What about Pandemic do you think gets people dancing so much?
PP: The booze helps, but that’s not really what does it. I think it’s the mix of music (Gypsy, Balkan, Cumbia, Bhangra, Afrobeat, etc). Last winter I was eating dinner before Pandemic somewhere (nervously freaking out, for some reason i freak out before every party) and overheard someone talking about going to Pandemic and they said something to the extent of… “I can’t wait to go to Pandemic tonight because it’s always like summer there.”
The music we choose is just so festive and celebratory. It’s fun to let the sound get unfamiliar or for lack of a better term, exotic. By that I mean we don’t play conventional club music, we try to push the limits a bit, but not in a high-brow heady way. I love it when you can get people to dance who normally don’t like to. There is something about the Balkan beats that loosens up even the most uptight dancer (myself included in the category). No one knows how to dance to most of the music, so people aren’t afraid to jump around and have fun with it. I personally try to find the most bizarre and silly songs to smash together in a set. One minute a Russian gypsy song, the next a Baile funk remix, then on to a 60′s Thai pop song, from there a South African house jam, or Peruvian cumbia? who knows.
KS: Do you have any particular Pandemics that stick out in your mind? Any stories that you might want to share?
PP: After every party I say “That was my favorite Pandemic ever!” Last month’s party was insane… I saw a boob or two, people were spilling drinks everywhere. I found out after the fact that it was Serbian Xmas and a party of people showed up after Serbian Xmas mass.
KS: What does the future have in store for Pandemic?
PP: I would really like to bring in more live acts. I’ve been talking to a few national and international DJs but I can’t confirm any names yet. I dream big like a concert series or music festival of sorts (wink wink VIA cough cough, Carnegie Museums cough cough, anybody who wants to work with me cough cough wink smile) But for now I’ll keep it simple and say I would just like just to have fun and continue to do it.
A PGH CITY PAPER ARTICLE FROM 4 years ago…
To promote Pandemic’s third anniversary, and to introduce the dance night’s wildly diverse global palette to newcomers, DJ Pete Spynda has made a free mix-CD: The garish package functions as a sort of multimedia show flyer and, if you attend, a souvenir of your sonic travels. But like the blank spaces on old maps, Spynda’s cryptic mix notes suggest vast, largely uncharted musical territories around the globe. Alongside a cut from the fairly well-known Balkan Beat Box, there are tracks labeled “I think Serbian or Russian,” “Unknown track Moroccan hip hop” and “Brazilian track info unknown.”
“I really like the term ‘bastard ethno-musicologists,'” says Spynda, over a frosty draft with his cohorts at Brillobox, Pandemic’s home. Indeed, the night’s DJs — that’s Spynda, formerly of Air Guitar Magazine, along with former CP music editor Justin Hopper and Centipede Eest’s Caulen Kress — are too busy mining music from this Google Earth to get too prissy and pedantic. Baile funk, Balkan beats, bhangra, whatever — can you dance to it?
When the night first started, the goal was to play exciting music from all over the world, but not the separate, pasteurized genre known as “world music.” As Hopper explains it, world music is “only ever listened to by people who are into ‘world music.’ And meanwhile, there’s dudes in Brazil — and Bosnia and Serbia, and Bulgaria and Japan and Thailand — making music that people in those countries actually consume as fans.”
Spynda offers a bootleg of “weird Brazilian bass” as an example of what he might spin. “It’s only been played in the streets of Brazil, and someone made a copy of it and it got posted on a blog,” he says. “Or an Albanian DJ who likes to add really cheesy samples to traditional Albanian music. Playing that kind of stuff, it’s actually cool, dirty, fun to dance to — and a lot of times, ridiculous.”
In the early days, keeping the music easily danceable — and audiences coming back for more — was important. And if you’ve ever braved the sweaty bodies on the floor at Pandemic, you’ll know that it often takes the dancers a little time to feel out the exotic beats, many of which stray far from Western pop’s 4/4 rhythms. Lately, Kress says they’ve become more adventurous in their selections. “Now, we’re not afraid to play psych music, or weird rock music, stuff like that,” he says. And “as far as regions go, we’re all over the place.”
With such challenging fare, Pandemic’s demonstrated staying power is remarkable — especially for three guys who don’t use traditional DJ techniques.
Spynda had never DJ’d before starting Pandemic, and freely cops to his lack of technical know-how. He downloads much of his music from blogs — he cites a particularly valuable blog hosted by DJ/Rupture — often the only place the rarer stuff is available. Kress prefers playing music that he actually owns, and picks up unusual music on his travels, but even he doesn’t consider himself really a DJ. While Hopper indulges his obsession with collectible vinyl by spinning Northern Soul with Soulcialism and other nights, for Pandemic, “it’s really Google-based DJing,” he says. In particular, he uses a program that rips mp3s from videos he digs up on YouTube.
“Despite the fact that it’s mp3s and burned CDs, and cassette tapes from taxi drivers, it’s actually the primal sort of DJ requirement … go find shit,” says Hopper. “Maybe it’s Jay-Z with Punjabi MC and it’s a Top-10 hit, practically. But maybe it’s some jagoff in his basement in Bulgaria.”
And despite Pandemic’s multi-genre, multi-ethnic mélange, it may also offer something uniquely local. “It’s a function of this bizarre Pittsburgh nightlife scene,” says Hopper. “There’s enthusiasm, and creativity and excitement pouring out of everybody’s ears and veins and everything, but at the same time, there’s not enough people that you could actually have a baile funk night.”
While plenty of cities offer Balkan music, or baile, cumbia or bhangra, they tend to be highly specialized nights, and lack the cross-genre adventure chaos of Pandemic, a chaos that the three DJs sometimes think of as a genre all its own. For now, apart from a party that’s recently sprung up in London, it may be a Pittsburgh genre. “I honestly don’t know that you could find a night like this in New York City,” Hopper says. “We’re actually ahead of this curve.”
But with a little cross-pollination through spinning on nights in other cities, and hosting guests like NYC’s DJ Joro-Boro, Gypsy Sound System and others, they’re hoping to spread their gospel of DJs without borders.
“I always had this dream of there being a day when people in other cities were starting Pandemic nights, where you don’t even name the kind of music you play, you just play ‘pandemic music,'” says Hopper. “That’s the dream goal — creating a genre.”
PANDEMIC – GLOBAL MUSIC DANCE NIGHT – 5TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
One of the many things I have learned from writing this blog and meeting great Pittsburgh people (a huge thank you to everyone who has helped to spread the word about the Steelers Party this Sunday) is an appreciation of good music. I think that many would say I have no taste in music – I tend to play the same songs on the
jukebox – No Diggity – is usually one of them. Anyone who has every borrowed my car, when I had a car knows the CD was usually Chaka Khan – Life is a Dance – a gem of a CD (the cover art speaks volumes about this album) that I picked up at Half Priced Books.
But as I mentioned in an earlier post – I have learned there are good DJs and bad DJs in Pittsburgh. One of the good ones is DJ Juddy – who is also a super nice person, a great writer and has lots of good stories about Pittsburgh and Steelers bars. I think he is also the person who introduced me to the best Pittsburgh song ever…
Flyer from Previous Pandemic Dance Night
And I stumbled upon an awesome night of music from Brooklyn’s Slavic Soul Partyat a Pandemic music night at the Shadow Lounge in 2008 – which even led to the creation of t-shirt in support of more accordion.
DJ Juddy is also the founder or Pandemic – a regular night of global dance music – which is celebrating their 5th Anniversary this Friday night.So this Friday – if you like music, and dancing – then you need to head over to the Brillobox for a big bad night of great dance music.
Pandemic 5th Anniversary
Friday, December 4, 2010 9:30pm-2am
Brillobox, Penn Ave, Lawrenceville
Facebook Event Page – http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=101013636636550
DJs Juddy and Pandemic Pete spinning world music dance ‘chunes – balkan beat, cumbia, bhangra, gypsy brass, brazilian baile funk, french hiphop, afrobeat, south african house, kuduro, Bosnian rap, Thai psych, and more and more!
Plus live acts:
- Good Game, Good Game – Pittsburgh based cumbia/balkan brass band about to head out on North Am. tour
- Soy Sos + Geña – Live Global Bass electronics and vocals from Soma Mestizo and Machete members
and from midnight-2am
DJ “Gentleman” Juddy vs. DJ Pandemic Pete “The Gypsy Brasshole” in a world-music sound clash DUB TO THE DEATH featuring nothing but the BIGGEST tunes from the past FIVE YEARS of Pandemic!! Vote with your feet on the dancefloor!
Since I have already established that my music taste is not to be trusted here are some other reliable sources from the past 5 years about Pandemic:
Pandemic started in Pittsburgh, PA in November of 2005 as a collective of three djs spinning the best in global sounds at the Brillobox. Pandemic is celebrating its 7th anniversary on Friday, December 7th at 9:30 PM. Special guest DJ Joro Boro, formerly the resident DJ at NYC’s Mehanata Bulgarian Bar will be spinning, along with resident DJ Pandemic Pete. In anticipation of the seventh anniversary bash, Pandemic Pete agreed to answer seven questions for MHS.
MHS: Whose idea was it to start Pandemic?
PP: It was a group decision between me, Caulen Kress, and Justin Hopper. Our bands were sharing a practice space and i approached Caulen about doing something like this, Caulen and Justin had talked about it and somehow the three of us met at the brillobox and talked to Eric, the owner. He said we could use the upstairs space. He wasnt quite sure what we were trying to do and I don’t think we were sure what the hell we were doing.
MHS: What do you like most about being at the Brillobox?
PP: Well we have a long history there. Pandemic was the first regular party there and we have a mutual respect for one another. They have allowed me the freedom to do not only Pandemic, but to start the Sweet Jamz Night, bring in live bands (i.e. recently the romanian gypsy brass band Fanfaire Ciocarlia), early on I did experimental music nights, benefits, and have also had film screenings. The Brillobox is just a great bar. The staff and owners are pleasant and easy to work with, the drinks are strong, sound system is killer, it has cool lighting and decor, and they open and welcoming people from all walks of life. They are home to great parties like Lazercrunk, Bro Club, and soon will be host to Titletown. And my favorite part is it’s smoke free.
MHS: How do you find the music you spin?
PP: I dig and obsess. I use blogs, social media, record store recommendations, friends, friends of friends, strange people on Youtube posting clips of their bands, i contact labels asking for tracks, i take chances and download tracks from blogs in other languages (hoping they are what they are supposed to be, and not viruses).
MHS: What about the awesome film clips in the background?
PP: I have used the same film for about 4 or 5 years now. it’s called Ashik Kerib. It’s a georgian film by Soviet-Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Parajanov uses elements from Armenian, Ukrainian, and Georgian culture, music, and art to tell the story of a minstel who falls in love but his loves father rejects him…blah blah blah. It’s a visually stunning Eastern European film with Middle Eastern elements. It looks exotic, is visually poetic and has a lot of dance scenes. So it fits with PANDEMIC. It was recommended to me by Andrew from the Dreaming Ant. I have rented it probably 75 times (which i believe is a record). Other Parajanov films I show are The Legends of Surnam Fortress, or The Color of Pomegrantes. Sometimes i also show Lucha Libre. But mostly its Ashik Kerib.
MHS: Do you have a favorite nationality of music to play? The most fun to dance to?
PP: My favorite is definitely GYPSY MUSIC and/or BALKAN BRASS. I don’t think any other dance party in Pittsburgh plays this style of music. It has been a staple since day one and has helped us to define/describe PANDEMIC as a night of Drinking Dancing Stomping and Yelling. Balkan Brass/Gypsy Brass is upbeat, fun, festive, sexy, and often times silly. It’s electrifying to get the entire place jumping up and down to a Romanian Cocek. My favorite part is that no one knows exactly how to dance to it, AND THATS OK. The music just takes ahold of you, you lose control and everyone (myself included) loses their shit.
MHS: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received at a Pandemic party?
PP: Do you have any normal music…?
MHS: How much longer do you plan to do this?
PP: After 7 years, I still get really excited before every party. I don’t necessarily foresee an end in the near future. I have my fingers crossed with the hopes we (or I) will make it another year or more…