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John Notarianni

By Tunde Wey
June 27, 2013

John Notarianni is tough to describe accurately. If a pithy description for him existed it would probably speak to him being placid yet frenetic. Notarianni is hip in that objective sort of way: tussled hair, appropriately fitted and worn jeans, world-beaten shoes, maybe a slim belt holding a tucked-in shirt. His eyes are inquisitive; Notarianni gives you the sense that a lot is happening behind them. The most immediately noticeable thing about him is a discreet energy, perceptible only in his shifting; running fingers through his hair, listening with his face.
The nervous tension of Notarianni breaks in a tumult of noise and pomp, for away from his more sedentary life as a media consultant-cum-strategist and business developer for Issue Media Group (parent of UIX) and Detroit Bus Company, he is aslo a band member and sometimes leader of the cheerfully disquieting Detroit Party Marching Band.
Notarianni describes it as "a guerilla brass band modeled on the idea of traditional brass bands – but we had been inspired by other alternative marching bands across the country."
The Band was formed in 2010 by John Notarianni, Rachel Harkai and Molly Notarianni, John’s sister. An anarchist outfit, in the colloquial sense of dislocating the status quo in favor of liberal revelry, the Marching Band began as an outlet for its members to express a collective id.
About its inception, Notarianni says, "The people who founded it lived in the city. We had been here for a number of years and we were all doing other full time work. It just sort of came up as an audacious idea, as something we thought would be so interesting and fun and jarring to do once. The initial idea wasn’t a band that would go on tour. We wanted a way to create a celebration, I guess."
Inspired by the New Orleans brass band culture, the Band’s music style is more a pastiche of traditional big band genres abrasively rearranged to reflect the Band’s anarchic predilections. Notarianni describes the sound as "street band; a mobile parade-ready mix of New Orleans parade music, Balkan brass bands, American Rhythm and Blues and more." While the familiar sounds of the Band draw folks to its impromptu performances, it’s the "more" that keeps them there.
Maybe what the Band signifies is paradox. If its existence plays as an evocative analogy to Detroit, it exists as this paradox that is the city, maybe best embodied in that now familiar blight-is-beauty motif that has been for a while called ruin porn.
People want to ogle at the Band, they want to dance, they want to be stupefied and they want to be happy all while being unsure of what is happening. For them it is like being in the middle of a happy riot, enjoying it but fearing what, if anything, comes next.

The Band injects jovial anarchy into a fragile city psyche, bruised from so many years spent fearing collapse. But the anarchy of the Detroit Party Marching Band is irregular, for to be spontaneous it also has to be disciplined.  
"It does function as a real band. We have a roster of players and we practice every week. We divide the responsibilities of managing gigs, managing finances, and composing new music." As Notarianni tells it, it seems the trick to it all is being open to the chaos that is life by planning for it and seizing it.
"Since there are several dozen of us who do this together. We have different people who take up leadership at different times, whether it's formal leadership or organizational leadership. Each time we go out we designate one person as the decision maker of the day. Sometimes we come off with a rough agenda. There will be times where we play at a street corner and someone would invite us to play at a restaurant down the street.  We plan up to a point and then things changes. It takes a lot of being responsive to what is going on around us."
There is magic in unexpectedly witnessing the spectacle that is the Detroit Party Marching Band and its unpredictability. "At times we have thirty people who love what we're doing and someone who's threatening to fight us." Its charm, inevitably impregnating skeptics with joy: "All of sudden these people who were looking bored are smiling and looking confused, and they whip out their cellphones!" And its paradox: "Over three years we’ve learned how to navigate…to be profoundly disruptive and considerate at the same time."
To be bold and go where no one has gone before, that trademark Star Trek call to action, is a lunge into the future, a gathering of sorts in preparation for some important work. For the Band it is the work of stunning an unsuspecting crowd into dizzying happiness, "being a big metaphorical high-five," as Notarianni puts it, and reconciling opposites.
"Everything we do is crazy. We were on tour in Milwaukee, where we played a show in a bar. We got half the bar to come with us. We were just parading around the neighborhood and the last place we came to was this bar doing a hip-hop night. It was very clearly two worlds of people. One of the guys we were with talked to the organizers of the hip hop show and we went in and infiltrated this space and created this swell of energy."
Crazy, Notarianni calls it, when two worlds collide, two seemingly opposite ideas such as chaos and calm. Well if it is called crazy, then success has a new name.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography

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