RiverSing Spotlight: Good Trouble Brass Band
This year, Revels is kicking off Revels RiverSing: Two Dragons Dancing with a bang… or rather, with a HONK! We are thrilled to have Good Trouble Brass Band, a Boston-based activist street band, join us in the festivities as we welcome in the Autumnal Equinox with song and dance. Revels Digital Communications Manager Sydney Roslin sat down with bass drum player Trudi Cohen and mellophone player Aleksandra Burger-Roy to talk about the band’s mission, music, and role in RiverSing.
Sydney Roslin: How did each of you end up playing with Good Trouble in the first place?
Trudi Cohen: I’m one of the original members of the band. We formed in 2003 as an activist band, by which we mean that we play for things we believe in. We’re not a professional band – we like to do community-based cultural events.
Aleksandra Burger-Roy: I joined the band in the summer of 2019 when I was an undergrad student at Northeastern University. I was already part of this larger cross-band organization called the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians, through which I went to a gigs that a lot of Good Trouble people were at. I really loved how the band sounded, and wanted to be a part of it.
TC: I think you’re talking to an interesting representation of the band because I’m one of the oldest members and Aleksandra is one of the youngest. We enjoy the age diversity that we have in the group.
SR: How many members total are in the band regularly?
ABR: We have around thirty active members. On average, I’d say 30-70% of us will show up at an event. We also have some members outside of our active roster who are more occasional, and if we include those people, I think our numbers go well above 40.
SR: You recently changed your name from Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band to Good Trouble Brass Band – can you talk a little bit about what this new name means for the direction of the ensemble?
TC: I think there was concern that by naming ourselves Second Line, we were claiming a genre that didn’t really belong to us. Similarly with the Social Aid and Pleasure, which came from the mutual aid social clubs in New Orleans – we have our own version of social aid in the mission of our band, but it isn’t exactly the same. Even though our music is very much inspired by New Orleans music, we didn’t want to claim it as ours in our name quite that way. I think that it’s an extraordinary example of successful group process that the whole group of us came up with a name that we all liked and could accept.
ABR: As a band, we are completely nonhierarchical. There are some members who take on specific leadership roles, but we don’t have any one person or even a council of elected people in charge of the band that make final decisions – we function wholly democratically. I think it’s awesome that 30+ people with all of our own ideas and opinions and feelings and history with the band and interpretations of our style were able to come up with such a kickass name.
SR: What were some of the reasons for picking Good Trouble as the new name?
TC: For me, it’s because it reflects our mission. It’s aspirational for us, evoking John Lewis and all of the amazing social justice work he did. It’s something I like to carry with me.
ABR: And in addition to that, I love that it doesn’t pull any punches. It is very candid and genuine with who we are and what we stand for.
SR: Could you tell me a little bit about some of the causes that you have supported with your music?
TC: When we first started in 2003, it was about the Gulf War. That was really our reason for forming, to be part of the protest against the war. Now we’re working a lot with Extinction Rebellion and some other climate organizations.
ABR: We’ve also done some work with City Life, a tenants rights group in Roxbury. We’ve worked with the Boston Dyke March and other, less corporate, more decentralized PRIDE festivals and organizations.
SR: When an opportunity presents itself for playing to support a cause, how, as a group, do you decide which ones to take on?
ABR: One of the members who’s volunteered for the role of Gig Coordinator posts the potential gig to this program called Gig-O-Matic. Every member enters their availability and whether they think that the gig aligns with our band’s values. Bare minimum, we need one musician per section and at least two drummers, with one of the drummers on bass and one on snare. We’ve also had to turn down gigs in the past because of concerns regarding our mission, but that hasn’t really been much of an issue in recent times.
TC: Mostly, we try to say yes, especially for local activist causes.
SR: I saw that the HONK! Festival is a Good Trouble invention. What does preparation for the HONK! Festival look like on your end?
TC: I’s a very big project. We haven’t had a full scale festival since 2019. This year, I think there’s going to be more than 500 musicians here. I feel like it’s really important to take good care of people when they come here – the fact that musicians really enjoy being a part of it is what makes it successful, and so my goal is to keep them happy. My job is to organize housing; I’m banging on doors a lot to ask “Could you put a few musicians in your house in a month?”
There are bands coming in from all over the country for the first time in four years, so I think they’re excited. It’s a festival of committed bands that play because they have causes they believe in. It makes for a particular kind of passion in the moment.
SR: What are some upcoming events at which people can hear Good Trouble Brass Band?
TC: HONK! Festival will be October 6, 7, and 8 in Boston. There’s one in Providence, a Honk festival called PRONK!, that Monday, October 9. And there’s Honk NYC! as well, which is the following weekend. You can learn more about our upcoming events on our Facebook page or on our website.
SR: You’re an activist band – in your opinion, what about music makes it an effective tool for activism?
TC: It’s louder than the street! Also, nobody doesn’t like it. It’s very attractive, it’s fun and exciting, and it draws people in. I think amplifying the messages that we care about is valuable, and so is bringing some joy to it.
ABR: I also personally believe that music is one of the purest forms of human expression. It transcends language and is a truly unifying force for humanity as a whole. I think the New Orleans Second Line genre of music is extremely well suited to activism because of how genuine it feels. It definitely has it’s rules, but a lot of those rules are meant to be broken, and the music tends to structure itself in a form of organized chaos, with each band member taking a slightly different interpretation, but still contributing towards a common goal of making this wonderful piece of music. That reflects well in activist work – a bunch of people who have their own reasons for being there, their own slightly different motives, and their own takes on the situation come together for a common goal of an activist movement.
SR: Finally, what are you looking forward to experiencing at RiverSing?
TC: I’ve gone to a bunch of RiverSings, and I really enjoy the music that everyone makes and the participatory aspect of it. I feel like we have this in common with Revels. There’s quite a range of proficiency of musicianship in our band – we don’t have an audition process where you have to be musically good enough, it’s more about fitting into the style of band we are and the reasons we exist. Revels is like that too, with this sense of participatory music making and the joy of being part of a musical experience. I’m also a puppeteer, so the dragon puppets are exciting!
ABR: This is my first RiverSing, and I’m super excited. I actually celebrate the Equinox as a religious festival, and most of the time I’ve either done it on my own or held a small potluck with friends. I have a feeling that this will be an extremely moving experience for me, especially being there at sunset.
Join Good Trouble Brass Band and the rest of the RiverSing guest performers this Saturday, September 23, starting at 5:00 PM by the John W. Weeks Footbridge in Cambridge. This event is family-friendly and FREE to all ($5 suggested donation), so come sing, dance, and catch a rare dragon sighting! Learn more at revels.org/riversing.