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."