In most brass bands, the sousaphone is a focal point. Raised high above other players, often emblazoned with a custom banner or design, the bell-shaped member of the tuba family functions as a group's mascot. Over the weekend at the eighth annual HONK!TX, a festival of community street bands, "Snapshot" discovered how the instrument's role is much more essential than symbolic.
"One thing that I enjoy and hate at the same time is the sousaphones never get a break – we are literally playing every single beat in every single song that we write," says John Hinote (yes, that's his real name), sousa player in local undead-themed outfit Dead Music Capital Band. "But If you have a song without bass, it just feels hollow ... it's that backbone, that bottom deep, throaty sound you hear that really gets things going."
Another fact that came to light: Buying a brand-new sousa ain't cheap (almost like buying a car), so most that you see are used – anywhere from 30 to 100-something years old. Few of the musicians who spoke with "Snapshot" knew his or her instrument's specific history, but everyone eagerly offered insights illuminating why sousaphone culture has depth that goes far beyond their capacity to emit booming bass.
Dead Music Capital Band's five sousaphones: Jason Gammage, Dan Gillotte, John Hinote, Rudy Guerrero, and Bob Kat. "I don't know where it originated ... they were all made around 1925 and mine sat in a music shop in Brownwood, Texas, for like 60 years," says Gammage of his 1265 King, the world's largest sousa model. "There were only 10 ever made. They're all still in existence, and we know who owns 'em – there's a little group of us."
Dave McGriffy of Austin Klezmer Bund – holding his sousaphone of unknown origin customized with hand-sewn banner – shares his favorite piece of brass history: "In the early days of brass instruments, tuning was not as well-standardized, so a town had to buy the whole set from one company to make sure they were all in tune." McGriffy guesses that many unknown eBay buys like his might've come from sets like these.
Nearly every sousaphone player "Snapshot" spoke with started on another instrument. Former clarinetist Katie "Lu" Major of Seattle-based Neon Brass Party thanks her horn for revitalizing parts of her personality: "I've played music all my life and got burned out in college ... then I picked up the sousaphone, started doing HONK!, and it was life-changing," she says. "I'm typically introverted, a little reserved, but then you put on the costume, pop on the sousaphone – a very large instrument – and you automatically have a stage presence."
"The great thing about being in the HONK! community is you see all these badass ladies on sousaphone, and you realize you can do that, too," says Joanna Vouriotis (seen here with her Sixties-era Conn 36K, customized with adhesive vinyl polka dots) of Somerville, Mass., group the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band. "If you have a sousaphone, you're automatically part of this smaller community – everyone here with one just wants to be friendly and talk to you."
Mel Dee and Saj Zappitello of Austin's all-female Yes Ma'am Brass Band likewise echo sentiments of inclusivity: "We do a lot of work on getting out there and owning something, like your solos ... so there aren't one or two people that control everything – it's more of a collective effort," says Dee. Adds Zappitello: "The band is a place created to foster that self-expression. Being the sousaphone player, you're both very exposed but also still kind of hidden behind everyone. But with these ambulatory brass instruments, we can get out of the back to run around and go a little crazy."
Austin-based Minor Mishap Marching Band's bass lineup is perhaps the most diverse: Austin Walton on tuba, Clark Thompson on helicon, and Niko Druzhinin on sousaphone, each with varying degrees of experience. "In general, the whole HONK! community is very supportive and egalitarian," says Thompson. "You can have beginners alongside more experienced players and everybody's welcome – that goes beyond the tuba section."
The Bass Choir – a Sunday afternoon alliance at Pan Am Park of all HONK! bands' bass instruments, including all tuba variants – perform one song learned over the weekend, a booming parody of Ginuwine's 1996 R&B classic "Pony": "If your horn is a tuba or a sousaphone/ It's time to play it: Come on, jump on it," they sang in unison amidst a series of bottom-heavy solos. "It's very much a community-based I-know-this-but-you-don't, here-watch-me thing – we all learn from each other," concludes Major.
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See photo gallery for more images from HONK!TX