Pittonkatonk: The Balkan brass-inspired gathering blends global musicians with local community in its sixth year

By May 9, 2019 No Comments

Story by Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer

At Pittonkatonk, attendees are not spectators or consumers. They are participants in an event that serves to bring joy and activism to Pittsburgh. It’s been this way since the May Day festival began in Schenley Park six years ago.

“We want to create an environment where everyone feels like they have ownership over Pittonkatonk,” explains event co-founder Pete Spynda.

That collective ownership is on display the day of the festival as people clean up their own and each other’s garbage, bring potluck dishes to fill everyone’s stomachs and welcome newcomers into their dance circles and conversations between performances. Folks young and old convene together in a joyous mass to be a part of it all.

It’s on display as swarms of volunteers dish out food, pick up ice, coordinate performers and gather donations. Nearly two dozen local activist groups educate attendees who then go forth and join the causes themselves, whether it’s advocating for immigrants or clean water or environmental justice or reproductive rights or all of the above.

“The point of Pittonkatonk is to have a day to celebrate those making our community better, be it Casa San Jose or Pittsburghers for Public Transit, groups that are trying to make Pittsburgh a better place, improve our water and our air,” says Spynda. “Usually whenever people hear about them it’s almost always because something is bad is happening, but here’s a time where they can just come and talk about what they do and get people involved. We’d like it to be their event as much as it is ours.”

Pittonkatonk is active year round, doing educational outreach at local schools like Sto-Rox. This year the party starts early on Friday at Salem’s Event Center with the Pittonkatonk Youth Showcase, an event that aims to show off the hard work of the youth who work with Pittonkatonk. The event will feature the Sto-Rox Marching Band with Afro Yaqui Music Collective, a collaboration between Casa San Jose youth and May Day Marching Band, Big Blitz, Elias Khouri and another collaboration with Lemon Bucket Orkestra & Sto-Rox Marching Band.

“It’s nice to able to give the youth a space of their own to really celebrate them,” explains Spynda.

This year’s Saturday picnic lineup will be an exciting blend of new and traditional, with musicians as diverse in age as the attendees. Džambo Aguševi Orchestra, for example, is Macedonian band that blends traditional Balkan, Gypsy and Turkish music and has won the prestigious Golden Trumpet competition in Serbia. The impeccable performance of traditional music will find itself alongside the sounds of What Cheer? Brigade, an activist punk marching band that makes music influenced by Balkan brass bands.

Los Mirlos will also be performing–a band widely considered the inventors of Peruvian-Amazonian cumbia–bringing a psychedelic cumbia to the park that they’ve been honing since the ’70s. Contemporary cumbia band La Misa Negra will also play, a band that has played Pittonkatonk before and used that space to cover Black Sabbath, start a cake fight and showcase a modern take on Columbian folkloric rhythms. Chile-born Rebel Diaz fuses hip hop and cumbian beats and samples, a very contemporary take on the kind of material Los Mirlos basically invented.

Traditional alongside the unconventional is what Pittonkatonk is all about. There’s nothing as traditional as a family reunion with potluck dishes, but that formula is exploded to create a family out of strangers, tethered together by music. It’s pretty rare to be able to watch the artist that influenced a band and the band that’s been influenced by that very artist on the same bill, but par for the course at Pittonkatonk, where the old and new are celebrated equally.

“It’s always been a dream to have international bands perform at Pittonkatonk,” says Spynda. “It provides so much cultural context for what we do.”

Each year it’s reiterated, but it can’t be repeated enough: Pittonkatonk is more than just a day in the park. It’s a May Day tradition rooted in collaboration, and each year it grows because the community that holds it up grows too.  

It’s a chance to give back to the community and to be a part of something. It’s an open invitation to engage with the people around you from all different walks of life. It’s a chance to dance with carefree abandon. It’s a place where how much money you have or don’t have is not a barrier to enjoying art or life. It’s Pittonkatonk. And there’s nothing else like it.

Pretonkatonk: Lemon Bucket Orkestra
May 9, 7 p.m.-11 p.m.
Croatian National Hall, 805 East St.
All ages. $10.

Pittonkatonk Youth Showcase
May 10, 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Salem’s Event Center
All ages. Free.

May 11, 3 p.m.-10 p.m.
Schenley Park
All ages. Donation based.

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