September 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Guerrilla marching band takes Detroit by surprise

Detroit Party Marching Band
Detroit Party Marching Band: Detroit Party Marching Band

You may not have heard them yet, but get ready. The Detroit Party Marching Band is coming soon to a bar, wedding, backyard party or bar mitzvah near you. Mostly likely without being invited.

They may not be the tightest band you'll ever hear, or even made up of the same people each time you see them. Their instruments are beat up and secondhand. So are their uniforms, which are not very ... well ... uniform.

Most of the members wear black jackets with gold trim that they think come from Tri-County High School in Iowa. The jackets and those Music Man hats were free on Craigslist. Below the dark serge tunic might be cargo shorts and flip-flops or a sparkly skirt and leggings.

But their rag-tag appearance -- and sound -- are an integral part of the band's charm. They're irreverent, subversive, bordering on the anarchic, but absolutely, flat-out fun.

And the most fun for the band is the "crash," an art form they've perfected in surprise appearances at venues from Motor City Brewing Works to Donovan's Pub. One minute patrons are having a quiet drink and the next they're surrounded by the zany chaos of these musical banditos.

A couple of spectators at a recent crash at Cass Cafe moved to Detroit from India just a month ago and said they found the city kind of dull until the Detroit Party Marching Band showed up. "It's really amazing to be in Detroit and see a band crashing a pub with all this music and fanfare," Wayne State University student Rashmi Chandra said.

"My favorite thing about doing this," says cornetist Krysta Hand, 21, of Rochester, "is just seeing the smiles on people's faces."

Changing band members

The personnel changes from gig to gig. There are 41 potential musicians on the e-mail list with a pool of 22 active members available to play on any given day.

Most live in Detroit or Hamtramck, but some come from as far away as Ann Arbor. When someone gets an idea for a gig or a crash, the e-mails fly and whoever is able to participate commits to the event. Anywhere from six to 18 players may show up.

The ringleader, front man and trumpet-eer is John Notarianni, 26, of Detroit, whose day job is producing a local radio interview show.

The inspiration came during a trip to New Orleans with his sister Molly Notarianni and Party Band drummer Rachel Harkai to see family for Mardi Gras.

"We were just blown away by the marching bands and the street music, and the way that music in New Orleans is just everywhere," he says. "It's on the streets, it's in restaurants, it's passing you by when you don't expect it."

"We were dazzled by this traveling music that just went wherever you went and was really participatory," adds Molly, because in New Orleans, when a band passes by, crowds fall in line behind them creating a "second line" that dances for blocks.

When the three returned to Michigan they couldn't get the concept out of their minds.

"It was my birthday and we were having some beers, and we went, 'Let's start a marching band,' " says Molly, who hails from Ann Arbor. They wrote a contract on a cardboard box lid with target dates for recruiting band members, and the rest is history. Well, a brief history, because that was just this past December.

By March they were out crashing bars, marching in the Corktown St. Patrick's Day Parade and helping banish winter in La Marche du Nain Rouge in the Cass Corridor.

'Celebration and community'

Some of the members are not, strictly speaking, musicians. "I have no interest in being a musician," Molly says. "I'm more interested in the marching band as a concept of celebration and community." Her bouncy, spritely cymbal playing is the definition of celebration.

None of the members of the Detroit Party Marching Band are professional musicians, but most of them played as kids and are thrilled to pick up the horn or bass clarinet they haven't touched since since elementary or high school, like John Notarianni himself, who hadn't played the trumpet since sixth-grade. Others are very skilled and played in college. There are four drum majors in the band and a few music teachers.

"We're not super-skilled musicians; we're not super-tight musicians," says John. "This is inherently supposed to be really loose."

Band members are all over the map as far as day jobs. They're journalists, lawyers, even dish washers.

They're a merry melting pot and they play a potpourri of music from Motown to Balkan Brass and Brazilian Carnivale. They've even covered a Lady Gaga tune.

Flash mob-like, the band recently began tweeting their targets shortly before crashing them so followers can join in the fun.

"That's the whole point of being a band that doesn't have to be plugged in to play," says drummer Rachel Harkai, 26, of Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood. "We can pretty much show up anywhere. And the element of surprise is really part of our mission."

Element of surprise

Even when they are invited to play, their guerrilla tactics are part of the package. For the wedding of Jamie Gumbrecht and Jay Varner at the Heidelberg Project last month, their appearance was on the down-low until they emerged from behind a polka-dotted house ahead of the bride.

"There's a lot to be said for that element of surprise when people have no idea that you're coming," Harkai says. "I mean, what's crazier than a marching band walking into the room? People seem to love it."

John is quick to add that the point is not to be disruptive, it's to give people a surprising good time. "It creates this kind of magic in the real world that doesn't usually exist," he says.

"And these flashes of mysterious weirdness are something that can happen in Detroit that isn't going to necessarily be able to happen in other cities. We couldn't do this in New York or Chicago. There isn't that level of security and rigidness here," John says.

"There's a lot of cool stuff happening in Detroit, but I know when I moved into the city I didn't know how to find it," John says. "One of the things we've been able to do is take the weird, creative, do-it-yourself energy that exists all over the city and bring it to a place where anyone can see it."

And now that they're getting seen, people are noticing and inviting them to play paying gigs, allowing the band to repair instruments and add some new ones. The bride and groom from the Heidelberg Project wedding bought them a sousaphone as payment.

"Since we're always in motion and we're always out, our instruments take a lot of wear and tear. So we're just trying to get enough funds to keep those things working," John says.

"Part of what we like about playing guerrilla shows is that we can," John says. "No other band is able to just walk into a room and start playing. There are no boundaries to where we can play. We can play wherever we want -- and so we will."

Catch them at P.J.'s Lager House

Besides waiting for happenstance, where can you see them play? Next month the band will travel to Boston for Honk! Fest, a gathering of guerrilla marching bands -- yes, there are others -- from around the country. The band will host and perform at a fund-raiser to defray the cost of the trip on Oct. 2 at P.J.'s Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., cover $5. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am married to P.J. Ryder, the owner of P.J.'s Lager House.

The Detroit Party Marching Band plays the Crow Manor Crownival party at the Victorian mansion on Trumbull in Detroit on July 31. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Taylor Kozak, 26, of Detroit plays clarinet and Gargi Manapatara, left, ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Noah Morrison, 24, left, and John Notarianni, 26, swap instruments at Crow ... (Noah Morrison, 24, of Detroit, left, and John Nota)
More Donna Terek