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The tubas played with gusto and the beer flowed freely at Sunday’s festivities in Harvard Square—but in many ways, it was not your typical Oktoberfest. The event, which organizers expected to draw 150,000 people, featured multiple stages of live music, dozens of local vendors, and numerous street marching bands.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Austrian tourist Martin Huber, commenting on the apparent absence of the German traditions typically associated with Oktoberfest. Huber and his parents, who are currently visiting the United States, stood out in the crowd with their traditional lederhosen—fine leather trousers attached to suspenders by ornate ivory buckles. Huber said he enjoyed the festival, which he characterized as “colorful and very bright,” but his family said they preferred the authentic, European Oktoberfest.
“Come to the Munich Beer Festival,” said Huber’s father. “There are not so many drunk people!”
The Harvard Square version of the centuries-old celebration differed noticeably from a “traditional” Oktoberfest.
The smell of Italian sausage, not bratwurst, filled the air, and only three small “biergartens” sold brews at the large festival—and not all of those beers were German in origin. And while many tubas peeked above the crowds, they weren’t playing polka—most laid down the bass line for street bands playing funk and Latin jazz.
The musical revelry began in Davis Square at noon, when a procession of brightly costumed musicians started to make its way from Somerville to Harvard Square. The parade was part of the HONK! music festival, an annual event that brings marching brass bands from around the country to Boston. Playing everything from trumpets to trash cans, members of the ensembles wore unusual “uniforms” consisting of kilts, dresses, wigs, and even stilts.
“It’s organized chaos,” said Andy Minnich, a member of the “Seed and Feed Abominable” band from Atlanta. Gesturing towards his tuba, adorned with glowing Christmas lights and a large cowbell, he said, “I want to be a drummer, but I also have this tuba.”
HONK! calls itself “a festival of activist street bands,” and many performing groups used the parade to make political statements. Some bands incorporated chants against “corporate greed” and war into their songs. Stilt walkers, standing seven or eight feet off the ground, carried banners with slogans like “Another Stilter for Class Warfare” and “Ditch the Rich.”
These colorfully garbed protesters, often dressed in drag, were not alone in the Square. Activists of all persuasions filtered for Peace” and a group soliciting “happiness” Post-It note messages from passers-by. One group even asked festival attendees to sign a petition for the legalization of certain types of marijuana.
But not everyone at the festival was an activist. Gary Sanborn, from West Roxbury came to see the Square’s Oktoberfest for the second time with his wife Marty.
“We love it!” he said. “It’s so cool, even for normal people like us. You just want to be a part of it.”
While Sanborn said he appreciated the merry atmosphere of the festival, many attendees said they tried to embrace an equally long-standing Oktoberfest tradition.
According to one kilt-wearing member of “Seed and Feed Abominable,” who identified himself only as Bill, the band hoped to live up to their slogan, well suited to any kind of Oktoberfest: “Where’s the beer?”
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