Most musicians, when they arrive late for a performance, don’t expect to find their bandmates sitting on the curb with their hands cuffed behind them. But that’s exactly what happened to Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO) cofounder Sarah Blust during the protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
The RMO was part of a mass march to Union Square on Aug. 31, 2004, when the NYPD blocked off several entrances and arrested about 50 musicians, says Blust. She came from work to Union Square to see her colleagues “sitting there all on a curb, with their hands behind their backs.” Their instruments had been confiscated. Eight hours after the arrests (and two days before they would be released), Blust found the instruments piled on a curb and was able to retrieve them minutes before garbage trucks arrived.
Of the RMO’s 60-some members, bass drum player Blust is the only founding member who’s still active. Blust, a Washington, D.C., native who works in women’s health, spent the summer of 2004 preparing for the March for Women’s Lives.
At one National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) organizing meeting Blust was struck by how boring “women’s marches” tend to be. “I raised my hand and said I wanted to start a band for the women’s march,” she said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
After the meeting, though, another member put Blust in touch with Michele HardEsty, who had proposed a similar idea. “It was like a blind date,” says Blust. At the Park Slope Tea Lounge, the women planned a band for the March for Women’s Lives and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, for which they recruited through posters, flyers and a lot of time at Bluestockings Bookstore.
From these beginnings, RMO has grown to be a regular on the New York protest scene for the past six years, playing gigs from a Time’s Up! ride to a community garden inauguration to a grocery store strike. These days, says Blust, “75 percent of the groups asking for the RMO to play now are because of Occupy.”
You know when you see them — not just because of the band’s raucous brass, audible from blocks away, but from their outfits of black and Kelly green, usually accessorized with stripes, glitter or fairy wings. But tracking the RMO is a challenge. Like a weather event, they appear abruptly, play furiously and move on. There’s no list of upcoming gigs — not on the band’s website, nor any publicly accessible calendar (though when they play an event for another group, the hosts will often publicize it). Sometimes, not even the band knows how many of its members will come to an event.
Audience and Players
To be effectively loud on New York streets, you usually need a loudspeaker, and to use a loudspeaker, you need a permit from the NYPD. If you’re planning on playing loud instruments, however, no such limitation exists, and this has made the RMO an essential ingredient in many impromptu demonstrations.
Daniel Flag is a dancer in the RMO’s spin-off dance troupe, Tactical Spectacle, which often forms a fluttering entourage around the musicians, dancing in front of playing musicians like a synchronized carpet of snakes, or engaging onlookers.
Flag frequently carries an enormous black flag at the head of an RMO procession, thus the name.
Flag, who had been a long-time admirer of the RMO with many friends in the band, is one of the few band members who was actively recruited. The band has an open-door policy: Anyone with an interest in political ruckus and a sufficiently brassy instrument can join.
Hannah Temple, a teacher and accordionist, first saw the RMO performing at the Queens Pride Parade four years ago. The marches were small, and she was frustrated by the police barricades separating the marchers from the audience.
“I came up to them and asked if they’d take an accordion,” she said.
This led to a heated discussion. The accordion, said Temple, is a difficult instrument. “It’s like having a piano in a band.” But she stayed.
The RMO’s disregard for the distinction between performers and spectators is one reason it’s such an adored — and effective — component of protests. Some members describe the RMO’s music as a diffusion of violent energy, activating where a protest march can be draining. Another is that (the RNC arrests notwithstanding), police who meet a loud but well-behaved band of fairies and punks are often at a loss for how to behave.
Taking it on the Road
In 2008, when the RMO prepared to attend the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, they researched transportation options exhaustively. The cheapest way to get 50 members with their instruments to the Midwest, it turned out, was to buy an old school bus retrofitted to run on vegetable oil. (They found one through the Vroom collective.) They made a road trip out of it, stopping in as many places as possible along the way — including Baltimore, Md. and Pittsburgh, Pa.
After their experiences at the New York RNC, RMO members try to avoid “confrontational” events, largely because of the expense of musical instruments. In Minneapolis, they made a partial exception. Flag recalls coming upon members of the Bash Back collective partially surrounded by police. The band danced up to the police and, still playing, escorted the collective members indoors.
“The RMO made me realize I’m not interested in going to protests as an individual,” said Temple. “In other parts of my life, individuality was power.”
For cofounder Michele HardEsty, “The fact that anybody can play music is a political statement about ownership of culture.”
New members pair up with a buddy to help them integrate into the band, which can mean learning the consensus process and how to avoid burnout. There’s a lot of work behind the marches’ ebullient joy. The band practices every Tuesday night, holds additional sectional rehearsals as needed, and meets once a month to talk about organizational issues.
This is in addition, of course, to actually playing events, which can number up to four a week. During citywide actions, the band can play a half-dozen gigs in one day.
The band’s leaders and logistics planners are volunteered by their peers on a gig-by-gig basis. This includes both the members who coordinate the event’s logistics with the host organization (“captains”) and those who march at the front of the band and determine its course at the event itself (“majorettes”). For trombonist Meredith Slopen, this structure means “we can have leadership without authority.”
The band makes most decisions by consensus, including which performance requests to accept and whether to admit instruments that are unconventional for a marching band. (The RMO has played host to a banjo and two violins.) An electric guitar and bagpipes are two instruments that never made it in, but came close.
“This band loves process,” Blust said. In fact, the RMO has helped with process and structure for several of the many radical brass bands that have popped up across America in the eight years since the New York City RNC.
There is a challenge defining themselves, as a band, and as a political group. Mostly the RMO tries to make organizing fun — not just at the peak of a demonstration, but in the day-to-day work. They see this as a crucial part of their mission of keeping activists sane. The RMO doesn’t teach or advocate specific politics, instead working as an ally of a range of activist groups.
The equal emphasis on politics and musicianship can be a liability. “We have a hard time keeping very good musicians interested,” said Blust. On the other hand, a few current members have learned to play an instrument in order to join the band. How does this happen? “Slowly,” says Temple. She herself has taken up the baritone horn since joining.
There are also band members for whom the RMO is the “fun” project between other political engagements. Others have left the band to return to graduate school (a major competitor of the band, according to Blust), and occasionally to focus their efforts on specific local campaigns. Band members come and go with enough frequency that there’s an official process for going “on hiatus.”
The only known member to have left the band for career reasons is the banjo player, who’s completing a medical residency in New Orleans.
John Bell, founder of the HONK! Festival, an annual gathering of activist street bands in Massachusetts, explained in a documentary why musical protest is so powerful: “You don’t need electricity, you don’t need a computer, you don’t need internet access, you don’t need a lot of money.” You don’t need a sound permit from the NYPD. You just go out there and play.
But money does play an uneasy role. The band has certain expenses, such as renting a rehearsal space, that are shared by all members. Other outlays — music lessons for individual members, for example — are not covered collectively.
While the band does encourage those groups that can to pay the band for performances — for example, if they’re asked to perform at a fundraiser — payment is not a strong factor in the decision to play an event. Any money the band earns goes into the general fund.
“We try not to be the free band you can hire because you don’t want to hire musicians,” said Temple. The RMO has counted professional musicians among its members, and many band members are particularly sensitive to avoid taking work from musicians.
Several years ago, the RMO was asked to play a festival in central Brooklyn. A few days after accepting, they were contacted by a local band that had originally been hired to play at the event. The festival organizers backed out of the contract, thinking the RMO would be cheaper. After learning about the cancellation, the RMO refused the engagement.
Friendship with dozens of RMO members is one thing that’s kept Sarah Blust in New York through several urges to move away. It’s one way, she said, to “justify the rent I pay.”
“Nobody ever really leaves the RMO,” says Blust. Though she’s the only founding member who’s still active in the band, most of the others have stayed in the city and they see each other frequently.
She added, “If I moved, it would have to be to another city with a band.”