Local street band attuned to political causes

If you live in Sonoma County, there’s a decent chance you’ve experienced the aural, visual and always joyful phenomenon that is the Hubbub Club.

An eccentric and eclectic street band of the sort director Federico Fellini might have mustered for one of his movies, this group’s brand of raucous music earns it stage time at dozens of public events each year.

From the infectious tunes culled from songbooks around the world, to the colorful, inventive attire of the musicians who play them, to the streamers and hula hoops that are part of its performance, the Hubbub Club is out to engage whoever stumbles into its path - sometimes sweeping them up in shared enthusiasm.

“Hey, I want to be part of this,” Sebastopol family physician and trombonist Jerry Eliaser remembers thinking when he saw the band play at a 2008 political rally, before he joined up himself.

“It’s amazingly fun,” said Santa Rosa Junior College student Pauline Allen, a trumpet player who, at 19, is among the band’s younger members. “The great thing about Hubbub is it brings the joy of music to everyone who plays and everyone who listens.”

Founded in the fall of 2007, the band has several dozen members, from stalwarts to alumni who may come and go, depending on life circumstances. Its roster includes mostly west county residents from all walks of life - a lawyer, a real estate agent, a massage therapist, a ranch caretaker and a stay-at-home mom. The performers are usually clad in red and black, the band’s signature color scheme.

Members sometimes learn new instruments as they go or, more often, rediscover the satisfaction of making music decades after putting down what they played in high school or college. ?“For most everybody, music is something you did as a kid and come back to,” said Sebastopol resident Jim Jenkins, a marine insurance underwriter. “It becomes something really important.”

While music is its core function, however, members say the band embodies a deep yearning for community connection and public service with a slightly unruly, comic edge revealed through kooky headwear and apparel and the antics of the “second-line” hoopers, stilt-walkers and dancers who often accompany the musicians.

There’s a leftist skew to the band’s choice of music, the venues and events it chooses to play and its operational structure.

The group sprang from an international movement that over the past decade and a half has seen the birth of “activist street bands” in cities across the nation whose members largely embrace liberal social causes and organize themselves around collective decision-making.

The very act of going into the street, taking over public space and playing loud music that brings people with you is a form of empowerment, said Jesse Olsen Bay, who founded the band with his wife, Frieda Kipar Bay.

“It’s my belief that one of the most politically powerful things one can do is simply sort of subvert people’s expectations of what’s allowed,” he said.

Bay, who has a young son and so many other musical projects he no longer finds time to play with Hubbub, had played with the Brass Liberation Orchestra in the Bay Area before the couple moved to Sebastopol seven years ago and began recruiting musicians for a Sonoma County street band that prized democratic rule over skill, though strong musicianship is important, too, he said.

Jesse Shantor, who joined as a high school freshman and was a Hubbubber for five years before launching his own band, remembers “a really ragtag group of really random musicians of varying skill level” and age range that proved “really inspirational.”

The band has no official leader. All decisions are made by the group. The role of “doodah” - conductor, of sorts - rotates among different members willing to step up and direct the band on any given day.

“We love a good party,” said veteran baritone horn player Dan Bosch, a Sebastopol landscape designer who joined with his now 20-year-old daughter, “but we’re especially committed to turning out to support labor issues, immigration issues, gender rights, schools, farms the environment - anything like that.”

Heavy on brass and percussion instruments, including a couple of wraparound sousaphones with giant overhead bells and big, bass drums, the Hubbub Club plays a sometimes unpredictable repertoire blending traditional American music with international folk tunes, jazz standards and Latin beats. The song list reaches back to America’s southern gospel traditions for offerings such as “Down by the Riverside,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It also includes more contemporary tunes, among them an upbeat version of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which, though played as a tribute to the late pop singer, is entertaining when arranged for a marching band.

Many selections speak of cultural and political struggle, including “Bella, Ciao,” an Italian resistance song from the World War II era; “Clandestino,” with reflections on immigration from Manu Chao, a Spanish and French songwriter; and “De Colores,” a folk song popularized in Latin America and used to rally the United Farm Workers union.

“There’s this incredible history of music associated with progressive and radical political causes,” Olsen said.

When it performs at the Arlene Francis Center and other venues on the west side of downtown Santa Rosa, the band has made a habit of walking over to the nearby gospel mission to play for its clientele, said David Bacigalupi, a designer and percussionist.

“It gets me. I am transformed,” Bacigalupi said.

Occupational therapist Steve Radice, who recently added his banjo into the band’s arrangements, joined after moving up from Los Angeles, where he’d seen a tape of Hubbub two years earlier.

“I said, ‘I want to play with them,’ ” Radice said. “My life’s ambition was fulfilled.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @marycallahanb.

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