The 2021 Hamtramck Music Fest wrapped up this past Sunday night. And while the last band’s set was at 6:30 p.m. — the Rachel Brooke Band at Trixie’s outdoor stage, for the record — John Bissa, one of the festival’s organizers, found himself wide awake at 1 a.m., lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, reflecting on the whirlwind that is the Hamtramck Music Fest.
This year’s festival was different than years previous. Typically held in the beginning of March, COVID-19 pushed this year’s fest to the warm summer months — although that could be thought a blessing when considering the thousands of festival goers walking from venue to venue at the tail end of winter. The warm weather fest also allowed for some outdoor venues, a first in the festival’s eight years.
Regardless of the changes, the mission remained the same, lifting up the region’s ever-vibrant music community — both the musicians and
the venues — all the while raising money for a good cause: the music and arts programs at Hamtramck Public Schools. While Bissa isn’t sure whether next year’s fest will return to March or make a more permanent shift to summer, Hamtramck Music Fest will return.
“We're always trying to do interesting things to give people experiences that they'll remember for the rest of their lives,” Bissa says.
What were some of your favorite moments this year?
Unfortunately, I spent so much time doing wristband sales that I didn't get to see a lot. But I can give you one highlight: the closing band at P.L.A.V. Post 10 was Detroit Party Marching Band. And they’re a perennial favorite. There was a moment where — you know you're upstairs there and the whole floor is just moving up and down. People are just connecting with the music on a primal level. And I really just love that.
That's one of the coolest things about the fest. It’s not only supporting the local music community and the bands themselves, but also the different venues that go out of their way to host them.
I talked to some of the different venues about how they did. One venue told me they had their best night ever since they've been open — and I know this venue has been open for six or seven years. I talked to another venue where they had to stop bringing people in because they were at capacity.
Can you sum up what a festival like this does for all those involved, the musicians, the venues, and the audiences?
The obvious beneficiaries are the Hamtramck schools and their music and arts programs; we'll be making another donation to them this year. I always think that somewhere out there, there's the next Jack White who’s just waiting to get an instrument in their hands and let the noises inside their head come out. So, if we just find that one kid that comes up with an instrument in a way that they weren't able to before, for whatever reason, having done this for eight years will be completely worthwhile — because that is such a fantastic thing. And even one musician can have such an impact on so many lives. That, in my mind, is the most obvious beneficiary.
There's a very big cross-pollination for the bands that play. It kind of acts as a high school reunion; people are there to see their peers but end up seeing bands that they haven’t seen before, musical styles that they don't normally interact with. So that is terrific. And that kind of applies for the fans who might not normally go see some of the bands that they're exposed to, because we're trying to push them to a diversity of musical experiences.
And then lastly, you know, there is Hamtramck. We know [through our surveys] that we're putting a quarter of a million to $300,000 into the local economy. There's not a community in the world that wouldn't take that. So maybe for some of the venues, that helps them make their year. Maybe it allows them to have one more employee. So that's somebody that wouldn't normally have an opportunity to have employment or a paycheck. All those things help that community and that's really important.
From the festival’s perspective, why Hamtramck? What makes Hamtramck special, why is it the right place for this?
Sure. Our grandfather for this whole thing was the (now-defunct) Metro Times Blowout. That really set the template in place for doing it in Hamtramck. And the characteristics that make Hamtramck special continue, you know, 20 to 23 years later. It’s a wide variety of venues that are essentially within walking distance of each other. And so you take, you know, Baker Streetcar Bar and Whiskey in the Jar and Polish Village Cafe. Those venues are all within, what, 1,000 feet of each other? Certainly within four minutes-walking distance of each other. You could spend the whole night just moving between those three venues, around and around. They have been pretty consistent supporters of whether it was the Blowout or Hamtramck Music Fest.
You start multiplying that by a whole city — not this year, but we typically have over 20 venues participating. That just lends itself to a bar crawl kind-of-thing. You can get to Hamtramck safely, you can take an Uber there or whatever. You start at one place and you can just bounce from place to place to place and six hours later, you've seen 15 or 16 bands. And you had a great old time and Uber back home and you can do it all safely, and that’s an experience you really can't have anywhere else in the world — unless you have some entertainment district with one block with twelve bars on it. Nothing else like that quite exists in Detroit, and certainly not on that scale.
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