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Playing at NYC's Biggest Race Is Its Own Marathon, Musicians Say

By Nicole Levy | November 2, 2016 6:04pm
 Three bands playing along this year's NYC marathon course (clockwise from the upper left corner): The Baghdaddios, New York Taiko Aiko Kai, and the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band
Three bands playing along this year's NYC marathon course (clockwise from the upper left corner): The Baghdaddios, New York Taiko Aiko Kai, and the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band
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Yvonne Sotomayor; Mark Diller; Louis Maffei

Running 26.2 miles is one kind of marathon.

Playing the "Rocky" theme song for three straight hours is another.

This Sunday, as 50,000 participants in the 46th annual TCS New York City Marathon race across the five boroughs, more than 130 musical acts along their route — an average of five per mile — will motivate them and entertain spectators on the sidelines.

Race organizers solicit some acts; others send them inquiries. Many of those playing the "city's biggest block party," as a New York Road Runners' spokesman described the Nov. 6 event, receive monetary compensation unless they volunteer. (The spokesman would not the disclose the exact amount.)

We spoke to three groups for whom the marathon has become an annual show — the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School Band, in its 38th year; the Baghdaddios, in their 19th; and New York Taiko Aiko Kai, in its 11th — about the gig that keeps them coming back:

► What brought your musical act to the New York City Marathon course?

Calling his act “the original marathon band,” Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band director Louis Maffei credits the idea to a school track coach involved with the New York Road Runners. Eight students serenaded the marathoners dashing past their school the first year. This Sunday, more than 100 student musicians will line an entire block.

New York Taiko Aiko Kai, a Japanese drumming ensemble, came to the New York City Marathon more than a decade ago “by accident,” as member Mark Diller puts it.

“In Japan, a typical thing to do to encourage runners is to bring taiko drums out to the side of the race course,” he said. When a drummer whose husband was running the race said she planned to do exactly that, the rest of her group took up the cause, piling their instruments into a car and setting them up in front of a Bronx tire repair center.


New York Taiko Aiko Kai performing at the 2015 New York City Marathon (Credit: Mark Diller)

Only the following year did they realize that race organizers actually supervised a music program.

The drummers submitted their act and “picked Mile 20 in The Bronx, in an underpopulated area of the race course… and near ‘the wall,’ where runners would run out of gas,” Diller said.

Race organizers solicited the alt punk band The Baghdaddios via email, guitarist Kenn Rowell said.

► What does your band have to do to set up on the day of the big race?

Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School Band alumni start setting up at 6:30 a.m. that Sunday along the route in Clinton Hill, Maffei said. Students play at the edge of school property.

“We’ve been offered other spots at the race, but we really feel the publicity for the school is the most important thing,” Maffei said.

In the morning, some of his former students help him rope off an area for a makeshift stage, install risers for the wind instrumentalist and percussionists, and run electricity across the schoolyard for amplifiers and microphones.

New York Taiko Aiko Kai: Diller and at least one other member of the group rent a panel truck to cart the largest Taiko drums to their Bronx spot at Mile 20. They arrive around 7:30 a.m. — hours before the fleetest-footed runners zoom by around 11 a.m. — while race organizers still allow permitted vehicles into the course.

“These are big, heavy wooden drums, so being able to drive right up to the curb and unload is a whole lot better than trying to schlep these things with hand trucks and teenage boys and whatever else it takes to get them there,” Diller said.

The next step is to arrange the drums, which come in various sizes and pitches, in rows for the other musicians who trickle in around 10 a.m.

The Baghdaddios: Members of Kenn Rowell’s alt punk band usually rise at 5 a.m. on race day. Most years, Rowell hauls his amplifiers, his guitars, and a portable PA system to a spot on First Avenue between 85th and 86th Streets by 8 a.m. Ongoing construction at that site will make the logistics more complicated this year: he’s rented an SUV to bring a generator with him, since the businesses that would otherwise provide power are closed for the time being.

But the arrival of the first runner makes it all worthwhile: “When that runner comes by, we launch into ‘Welcome New York,’” an original Rowell tune, “and I never cease to get the hair of the back of my deck standing up,” the musician said. “It’s just magic.”

► What does your set list on race day look like?

The Baghdaddios: While the band likes to open and close with the upbeat “Welcome to New York,” it doesn’t have much of a set list beyond that. Calling out song titles as the hours unfold, the quartet plays a combination of original compositions and covers of classic pop hits like “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Twist and Shout” and “Johnny Be Good.”

Marathoners particularly love their version of The Clash’s “Police on My Back,” Rowell said. “The refrain is, ‘I’ve been running Monday, Thursday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday’ — when you’re going through that one, you can see runners giving you the thumbs’ up or pumping their fist or nodding.”

A young spectator once requested “Sunny Day,” the bandleader recalled. “I thought maybe it was a reggae song he was talking about and our band manager leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘I think he means the theme song from ‘Sesame Street.’ Inspiration striking, we kick on the distortion pedals and we do probably the fastest, punk rock version of the 'Sesame Street' theme song you’ll ever hear.”

The Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School Band: Three years after the release of the first "Rocky" film, the high school band played the movie’s popular theme song on repeat at the 1977 New York City marathon. Of course, they didn’t have to play the motivational anthem quite as many times back then.

“Now … with all the runners involved, the ‘Gonna Fly Now’ theme lasts three hours,” Maffei said. "But it’s not just that — it’s improvisation on that, building a big wall of sound. And even though there’s repetition, it doesn’t really matter, because the audience is a changing one.”

Added Maffei: “We tried to change it up a few times, but it seems that everybody wants 'Rocky,' so that’s why we’ve always come back to that.”

For some variety’s sake, the high school band’s set sometimes opens with a solo-guitar rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” and typically closes with the Frank Sinatra hit, “Theme from 'New York, New York.'”

New York Taiko Aiko Kai: The group's drummers aim to, at the very least, keep a steady beat, Diller said.

Their performances involve not only percussion, but ritualized movements of arms and legs: ”It’s a very visual as well as aural experience,” he explained.

► Playing for hours on end outdoors sounds exhausting. What’s the most difficult part of Marathon Sunday for you?

The Baghdaddios: “The big challenge is it being cold,” said Rowell. “There are times when it is absolutely frigid and when you’re getting up before the sun comes up and you’re hauling equipment around — it’s the last place you want to be. And you go through this little ritual every year, where you say, ‘I swear to God, never again.’”

At the end of the day, Rowell said his muscles ache as much as any runner’s. After the Baghdaddio’s marathon show in 2009, the guitarist was in too much pain to watch the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series on his living room television, listening to it instead on his bedroom radio.

“But those are the most satisfying shows,” he said, “because when they talk about a professional athlete leaving everything out there, I get a small glimpse into what that’s about.”

The Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School Band: When Maffei’s students begin to tire, he puts their fatigue into perspective: “I say to them, ‘I don’t know why you kids are tired. You have people coming up here with wheelchairs and no legs who’ve gotten here with their hands.’”

Comparing his most critical pre-marathon task to that of a track coach, Maffei said, ”I have to condition them to be able to play that long, so it becomes a marathon within a marathon almost.”

high school bandThe Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School band playing "Gonna Fly Now" at last year's race (Credit: Louis Maffei)

New York Taiko Aiko Kail: While it presents its own endurance challenge — “playing Taiko can be a very energetic form of exercise, because the stance you get into is a kind of low crouch, and the way in which you make the sound with the drum with these very large drumsticks.. It’s almost like practicing martial arts,” Diller explained, adding that it’s traffic that might prove New York Taiko Aiko Kai’s biggest issue on marathon Sunday.

Driving the drums back to their Manhattan storage locker — “given the traffic patterns that are disrupted by the marathon — is no small feat,” Diller said. “We’re all ready for a beer after that.”

► There are plenty of other gigs to book around town. What brings you back every year?

The Bishop Loughlin Memorial Band: Written feedback has inspired Maffei’s band — which schedules 40 other performances during the school year — to return to the marathon sidelines year after year.

“Maybe for all of you playing the same song over and over again is boring and dull, but you played it at a moment that I could use it very well,” reads a letter he received from a first-time marathoner from the Netherlands. “Thanks to all of you for being there and performing — that is surely an achievement in itself.”

The Baghdaddios: New York native Rowell said he believes it’s important to show marathon participants from more than 125 countries that his city has “plenty of heart.”

"If we contribute to that as all, then I feel honored and it really is a dream come true," he said.

Plus, he added, the obligation of playing for hours on end seems to produce some of his band’s best performances.

New York Taiko Aiko Kai: Of his group’s motivation, Diller spoke of a “joyful sharing of energy” between runners and musicians: “Obviously the ones who stop and want to take a picture with us, or chat with us, or play the drums with us — that’s one kind of sharing of energy.”

One year, for example, a group of 35 Japanese women wearing traditional happi coats interrupted their run to perform a traditional folk dance to the drummers’ music.

“But the ones who just run by and wave at us, or acknowledge us or respond in some way — that’s also a sharing of energy that’s very palpable. You don’t get that every day living in New York City, certainly in Manhattan.”