Saturday, April 28, 2007

A blogger’s inbox is full of sundry requests ... busking

Having run the Alan in Belfast blog for over a year now, I’m getting used to the emails that come through from strangers with requests for comment, help and information etc.

So far, two interview requests from the BBC, one from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a publicist looking coverage for the DVD release of The Last King of Scotland (in return for a free DVD) ...

But a recent email from Gemma deserves a post ... and an opportunity for you to leave your comments.

Hello, I was reading your blog and was wondering if you could help me with a project I’m doing for my Anthropology degree at Queens. Me and the girl I’m working with are doing a module where we had to pick a part of Belfast’s culture to research and make a website about using video, audio, photos and interviews and we’ve spent the last 2 months talking to buskers in Belfast to gather material.

We want to have a section on the website of opinions and reactions to buskers from local people and businesses so I’d be really interested to know what you think of buskers in Belfast, especially since you already share your views about local topics online.

Do you think buskers are a good addition to the street environment and what would make you give or not give to a busker? It’d be great to quote your response on the website ... Thanks for taking the time to read this and I look forward to your reply.

Buskers and street entertainers all add to the colour of our otherwise dull streets. They bring a bit of humanity in the midst of the rest of us automatons moving from one place to the next along our bust streets. And they’re legal too.

There’s a fine line though between busking a begging. A line drawn between being performed to and being performed at. Invading my private world as I walk down a street or trudge through a shopping centre is ok as long as you lift my spirit gently. But ram music down my throat and glare as I walk past tight-fisted, that’s a different matter.

I posted the other day about a woman sitting late at night on a stool under a tree beside the bank of the Thames in central London, playing beautiful melodies on her keyboard. Yes the keyboard case was open on the ground a few feet in front of her, inviting the appreciation of passers by.

But the music conveyed the feeling that she was enjoying playing. It wasn’t a chore, working to collect money. She was exercising her talent as much for her own enjoyment as that of others passing by. So much so, that thinking back, I feel guilty that I didn’t go down to the bottom of the steps to throw a few coins into her case. Instead, I leaned on the railings of the bridge, transfixed by the music, soaking in the experience and not feeling that I was being performed at. (And after a while I hurried off before I soaked in the rain that started to fall!)

Belfast’s had a number of prolific buskers. I haven’t heard or seen the one-armed trumpeter for many years now, but he was a really good musician. Well worth a handful of change.

But the kilted bagpiper always felt more like a menace. He switched location every half hour or so—I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a deal with the shopkeepers not to stay in the one place for too long—which meant if you went shopping at lunchtime, he’d keep popping up no matter where you turned. Complete with CDs to sell to tourists. Maybe as part of political agreement, solo bagpipers who don’t belong to a larger band will have to decommission their weapons instruments.

The acoustics in the tunnel on the way into Pottinger’s Entry are fantastic. But sometimes this pitch gets a second class guitarist with a lousy voice ... making you want the good guy to return.
Very few female buskers. Except at Christmas when brass and string groups made up of sixth formers and QUB music students appear at every turn. Some look like they’re really enjoying it. Others look like they’ll go away as soon as they raise their target.

Maybe Gemma's website will feature some of these characters. Gemma - you should post a link in a comment below.

London Underground have it about right. A few years back they banned all casual busking in the tube stations on grounds of safety. Instead they allowed people to apply, auditioned them to make sure they had some talent, and then licensed them to play at specific locations at specific times. They set up a rota. It really upped the quality and the enjoyment. A cello or an electric guitar echoing up the long escalators can sound superb.

All a far cry from France where buskers (often in groups of three) walk up and down the Metro carriages (you can get between the carriages unlike the London tubes) performing a few songs in a set before moving to the other end of the train.

Quite a ramble (as usual). You’ll want to add your thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think buskers are an asset to any city. I live in NYC now, and the subway here is full of great musicians. One of the most famous ones, the 'Saw Lady', has a blog in which one can see lots of the different NYC buskers and read about them from the point of view of a busker -
What you wrote about the lady playing keyboard reminded me of the 'Saw Lady'.
I think the permit system for buskers in NYC is better than the one in London (it's a lot older, too, so I guess they have more experience at what works well).
I appreciate buskers - think of the courrage it must take to play on the street!