Buskers and Bruce Springsteen

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Forty years ago today, a much younger,  scruffier Bruce Springsteen released Born to Runan eight-track opus chronicling the hardship, magic and banality of working class America–after a pretty long struggle to get it done.

He toiled for hours over a massive, complicated mixing board tweaking the record’s master tracks. After months of all-day recording sessions, they were a mess. Bruce and Jon Landau nearly went broke trying to salvage them. According to a few members of the band, Bruce even chucked the first pressing halfway down the street in a fit of frustration.

The process of perfecting his third studio album kept him away from playing live shows for longer than he or the band had ever been comfortable with; so when it finally started to see the light of day, they hit the road hard, touring from July of ’75 up though a sold out show on New Years Eve. Despite critical and popular acclaim for the album, it was the loud, extraordinary live shows that kept him afloat.

Through a tough early career and two softer albums–Greetings from Asbury Park (1973) and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)–that went largely unnoticed, people still packed themselves into pubs and smaller concert halls to see Springsteen put on the three or four hour extravaganzas that have made him a legend among fellow musicians. He jumped off of pianos, walked into the crowd, and played enough blistering solos to garner him attention as a gifted guitarist as well as a songwriter. As he said to a crowd at the Stone Pony in 1974:

“you should leave with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, and your voice sore.”

But since then, he’s had a few interactions with crowds off the concert stage, as well as a few with some now-famous buskers. In honor of the fortieth anniversary of his finest work, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of them.

Boston Common, 2011

After dropping his son Evan off at Boston College, Bruce took a walk through the Common. He stopped for a minute to watch David Gonzalez, a local guitarist who’d been performing there for years, and dropped a few dollars in his guitar case.

When the two got to talking, Gonzalez told Springsteen a story about how he and a few friends had planned to see his show in Argentina back in the 80s, selling off most of their possessions (including Gonzalez’s guitar) in order to afford the trip. “We never made it,” he says, “but I saw him there and I said, ‘play my guitar!'” Minutes later Bruce was up on a ledge with David’s beat-up Spanish guitar, playing through what seems to be an early version of the Roland Cube.

Above is a cell phone video of Springsteen in the Common, strumming a few chords from one of the busker’s own compositions. According to Gonzales, Bruce came back a few minutes after he’d left to drop a little more money into his case. “For the trip you never took,” he said before heading off.

 

Copenhagen, 1988

In what’s become a favorite video among buskers and Springsteen fans alike, the Boss stops along a street to play a few of his own songs with local street performer John Magnusson. He was on tour abroad in Copenhagen, supporting the upbeat, newly released Tunnel of Love. 

The two jammed for a few songs until the crowd got too big to manage. Crowd favorites included I’m On Fire and The River, proving once and for all that sad, angsty Springsteen will always triumph over the happy late ’80s stuff.

Lesson: Always leave an extra guitar lying around the pitch. Bruce Springsteen likes to show up unannounced.

 

Kilkenny, 2013

We’re reaching now. I get that.

Just because Glen Hansard came up busking on Grafton Street doesn’t mean that we can talk about him every time he does something cool. However, this seems worth drawing a little attention to, doesn’t it? Two of the most prominent singer-songwriters in modern music, getting up on stage in one’s home country to play one of the other’s most tragically overlooked songs?

Worth it.

New York City, 2015

A few months ago, Bruce Springsteen climbing up onto the stage at Madison Square Garden with U2 wouldn’t have meant very much to us. He’s done that before, most notably at the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2005.

However, since Bono and the guys from U2 teamed up with Jimmy Fallon to busk in Grand Central Station earlier this summer, it’s kind of become our business to keep up with them.

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Pildorita Enrique – Montevideo Transit Clown

There were many serendipitous encounters on The Busking Project, but none so chance as this.

One day at a cafe, Nick was asking a guy, “So how do we find buskers in Montevideo?” At that moment, a clown walked through the door and started speaking to the owner immediately! And what a clown. Pildorita Enrique is transit clown who tells jokes and stories on the buses of Montevideo. He is a bit of a local legend, and you can see why.

We were very lucky to meet Pildorita, and get a chance to experience his work. Unfortunately, the audio wasn’t great when we shot him (we’d recently lost our collar mic), so we’ve not put much in this video, but you don’t need it – his movements and mannerisms are enough to show you how good he is.

Like all great clowns, he’s funny in any language.

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German Wheel Acrobats in Montevideo, Uruguay

The Busking Project got a chance to stay with Diego Jeorge and Daniel Ercila and live in their studio space in Montevideo. They use a “German wheel” (check out the video below), performing at traffic lights.

We loved it, because up until then we had seen several hundred contortionists, escapologists, tightrope walkers, fire breathers and so on around the world. And generally at traffic lights we’d seen clubs, balls and unicycles. But here, these two acrobats in Montevideo, Uruguay, were doing something different, taking a huge, lumbering metal German wheel to the streets to entertain people in a way that few others were worldwide.

A second difference were that we were living with Diego and Daniel, which allowed us access to their lives in a more intimate way. They were playful, trusting, and allowed us to take shots we wouldn’t have been able to elsewhere (like, fake brushing their teeth for us).

In case you were wondering, the shot where we taped the DSLR to the rig was both foolish and dangerous, but Chris was an eagle scout and can do basically whatever he wants with tape. My hero.

It was a lot of fun.

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Freddy Charango (Torbela) : Santiago, Chile

Summer is just beginning to peak in November in Santiago, and on this incredibly hot day, Sebastián, Giles, Mardy, Nick and I take a bus to the other side of Santiago to meet this legend.
Freddy Charango

Freddy Torbela is an unassuming older man, with long salt and pepper hair. People know him as Freddy Charango. Yet when his passion ignites and he begins singing, it hits you deep. You understand immediately that he is sharing a piece of his soul.

 

He is a transit player and singer, so after the initial greetings the whole team crowds onto the sticky, humid bus with him to capture his act. The route he chooses is served by a long, accordion bus, the ones with the bendy midsection. That’s where he stands, directly in the middle, and the team takes their place to shoot. We don’t have quite the right equipment to film in such a tight spot, so they struggle to bend out of the way from each others frames. Mardy, Giles and Nick are trying to shoot in all directions.

 

I settle in, kneeling low in front of Freddie, holding a mic up high. Bouncing and jostled by the movement of the bus, turning and twisting on the moving platform, it’s difficult to stay upright and focused on Freddy.

 

The crowds know him, his presence is welcome and infamous around Santiago. If he gets on your bus, you are in for a treat.

 

As he plays, everyone is hushed and attentive to his every note. This bus transforms into an intimate theater as we all share the ebb and flow of his melodies. I take a moment to look up at all the faces, and everyone looks so tranquil, even in the discomfort of the crowds and heat.

 

Traveling at 50kms down the main streets of Santiago, this group of strangers share this moment of connection, to Freddie, and to each other as they look at one another feeling the same peace of mind in that moment. For a bus trip this is about as beautiful as it gets.

 

Freddie knows this route well, and as the music crescendos and completes just as we near the next stop. He announces his hat line, in Spanish of course, so I don’t catch his words but the public do and erupt with applause. He holds out his hat and people actually get up to tip him! It’s the opposite of the normal transit hat – most buskers have to go around with the hat to collect. I’m nearly trampled by his fans.

 

Then the bus finally stops, and I finally lose my balance and fall over onto the floor and the doors open as the crowds are released.

 

see more of Freddy’s work here:

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Peruvian Street Performer – Manuel

Manuel is a Peruvian Street Performer. He commutes a long way from the outskirts of town to busk at traffic lights in the heart of the city. The Busking Project got a chance to see what it’s like to be a traffic light busker in Lima, and for an inside view of the life of Manuel at his home in the dusty suburbs.

You could be forgiven for thinking that what Manuel is doing is different – he’s from a very poor part of town, juggling for wealthy people in the centre of town. We carefully asked him what he’d say to people who thought he was just a beggar with some skills. He gave us the same answer as buskers in plazas across Europe, of grad school students in Central Park, of pretty much everyone.

“It’s not begging at all,” he said, “no, I reject that. I am continuing a very old tradition in my country. There have been buskers in Peru for centuries, that is all I am doing. I am an artist.”

So, there you go.

Enjoy!

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12 Days Stuck in Santiago

Our Plane arrives at 22:30, and security upon arriving in Santiago is meticulous. They held us back for having bee pollen lip gloss, and questioned me heavily on what was inside my juggling balls, but finally let us through. We catch taxis; Chris, Belle, Nick and I are to stay in a Couchsurfing apartment, which Giles and Mardy go stay with local friends.

 

The taxi drives through beautiful streets and I feel connected to this place right away. There are skate parks and bike lanes, which means off the top it’s committed to urban placemaking. It’s obviously a progressive city. It also has beautiful 17th century style Spanish red brick architecture in its downtown core.

 

We pass a three story high Christmas tree in front of the grand central station. It’s strange to think of Christmas as the sunlight in South America has been getting longer, but it’s the end of November. The clock reads almost midnight, a Friday, and we are exhausted.

 

Our first priorities in Santiago is to obtaining our Brazilian visas, but the offices are closed for the weekend and we need to get up early in the morning to begin finding and filming buskers; Saturday is the best busking day no matter where you are in the world.

 

The crew is still slightly ill, and none of us have slept properly for days. We knew that this particular couch was having a ‘couch surfers party’. You never quite know what you are walking into with each place you stay.

SantiagoHosts

The 4 of us arrive to the door, unsteady, sleep deprived and unsure we are in the right spot. We ring the bell, the door opens, and 5 people laughing, partying, greet us in Spanish and begin taking photographs of us carrying our enormous backpacks weighed down with camera equipment.

 

The hosts finally come through the crowd to greet us, and usher us through to place our bags down in one of their rooms. We take 5 minutes of rest while a raging party goes on in the background. Belle is looking greener by the minute. We realize our need to eat.

 

Nick and I go out to face the party, have a glass of wine to join for a minute and ask them what our possible options are. Chris and Belle try to feel better, so while waiting for them to regain their feet I start hula hooping with the party people – when you can’t beat it, join it, right? We learn of a late night Chinese restaurant near by and the four of us take off for a bit of down time.

 

Bellies full, we go back to the party and learn that the 4 of us are actually sleeping in the hardwood living room floor, except, of course, there are about 20 people dancing there at the moment. Belle gets more sick each passing minute and has to lie down. Our hosts graciously give the single bed to her for the night, Chris stays with her and Nick and I stay up all night talking, being social, partially waiting for our piece of floor to be free. We weren’t very social, honestly, although we were trying… At 6:30am we finally sleep.

ViewofSantiago

(the view from the apartment)

 

It’s Saturday, the street performers are out in full force, so we are up at 09:00 to find the performers. Belle is very sick by this point. She and Chris decide to get a room in a hostel so they don’t make our hosts sick. Nick and I go out filming for the day meeting Mardy, Giles and Chris in the square.

I noticed a diabolo player starting a show, and the whole crew goes over and begins filming. This was one of my first times getting to use the DSLRs, yes! This is my chance! Although I’ve been creating videos for years, I’ve never learned about DSLRs before, and I haven’t used an SLR since I was in high school. It’s difficult and I struggle with focus and aperture settings but before I can even Mardy says

 

“Can I just use that to get this shot?”

 

She takes the camera, and then I lose the camera for the entire day. It’s disappointing, but there really is only once chance to get the right shot. Nick noticed this, and was supportive and trying to teach me as much as he could. On one hand, it was necessary, the other hand, my speed and control over shots didn’t get better because I had no access to the cameras. It became a circular and recurring problem.

 

I stand by while they do an interview with Daniel the Diabolo player. Giles is the translator, Mardy, Chris and Nick film. It’s emotionally difficult to just stand around feeling useless part of the team. The project itself begins to running out of money and asks if I can start paying for my own costs, and that’s fine, but my doubts about my purpose is here and how I can best add to this project weight on me heavily along with my sleep deprivation and culture shock.

Daniel and TBP team

Our generous, but party animal hosts drink until 3am every night this weekend, and Nick and I have no choice but to stay up with them. We’d meet team would meet every morning at 10 to start filming. That was our schedule all weekend.

 

My enthusiasm starts to wane. Chris gets sick too, and the team is generally in a daze.

 

Monday comes and it’s crunch time. We get up at 8 am to go to the Brazilian Embassy to get visas. Everyone is supposed to be there early, as they only accept people before 11am.

 

At one point I’m on my own trying to find my way around, and luckily the metro in Santiago is easy to navigate. An interesting part about having a multinational team is the visas. Nick and Chris are British citizens, so don’t require visas for Brazil. But Belle’s American, Mardy’s Singaporese, Giles is Australian and I’m from Canada, and we all need to get visas before we can move on. It’s the last chance.

Mural

I find my way to the embassy an hour later than anticipated, only to realize that you’re suppose to go to the consulate, not the embassy.  I had given myself 1 1/2 hours leeway, thankfully, knowing full well that I had to be there for sure. They give directions and I proceed through town to find it, getting there in enough time! *phew*

 

Belle arrived shortly after, but the rest of the team was missing!? We talked about our paperwork, and I realize I don’t have everything needed, but it was just a few photocopies, so I switched my place in line with Belle and quickly found a photocopier.

 

After much waiting, we finally realize we can obtain a visa, but that they take 6 business days to process, which means we have to stay an extra weekend in Santiago. We have to stay for 12 days here total, meaning we have to find a new place to stay and that our time in the later countries is cut short.

 

Belle and I go for lunch, and I learn from her more about the difficulties and tensions in the team over the last 8 months.

 

In Vancouver, the team came to my house and were very amicable, but obviously exhausted, nearly falling asleep for 2 days of the 5 they were there. I had no idea of the difficulties they’d faced, or how difficult it was to arrive in various locations, fit in with the local hosts, film hundreds of street performers all day, log the footage and charge batteries at night, write blogs and wake up to do it again and again for 8 months straight.

 

It blindsided me to think about. This is the fourth city in my very short time with the team, and already I can see how sleeping too little and working too much has created difficulties. Traveling is dreamy in the mind, but it can be hard in reality.

Dawn Meta

I am also feeling the effects of being a part of The Busking Project team. I begin to see clearly why the volunteers (Giles, Mardy and I) were needed in South America – finding new couches to stay on, having more people to do the work collectively, with some people at home working on the footage and others out filming and researching the local busking scene in each city is really important.

 

The goals for this project are ambitious, and the whole thing is overwhelming. Culture shock can be overwhelming on it’s own, but at this point I see why the stresses of travel, workload, and culture shock can disintegrate the fabric of sanity, for the whole team.

 

I only have a taste of what this feels like, and my respect for what Nick, Chris and Belle have been through trying to create this increases ten fold. They tell me that despite adding three people to the team, we are doing less filming than they had done for the previous eight months. I’m amazed.

 

Unlike our experiences couchsurfing in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, here we actually have hot water, available coffee and a kitchen we can use. Plus, its not 4000m above sea level. Our bodies start to adjust and feel better in our time here. Our hosts have day jobs, so the begin to sleep at night again. Although the team is sick, tired and stressed, all the work gets done, and everyone is handling themselves exceptionally well.

 

Through my talk with Belle, I begin to realize that my part on the team is in part just taking the weight off the others. Doing simple things like carrying bags, cooking for the team, and listening to some of the more difficult parts of the journey is what is needed. Part of the difficulty the team faced is the loneliness that can come from travel. Although they are together, each missed home, their friends, their culture and some idea of regularity.

Chris and Belle

In this way, The Busking Project really were acting like buskers, and as the team busker, I understood what that was like, and could provide some of those smaller comforts that began to become more important by the day.

 

The following Monday, it’s time to pick up the visa. Mardy and Giles, they had trouble with theirs. They did not get to the office on time, and they didn’t have all their paperwork ready. We realize they’re going to be 2 days to a week later than we are getting to Buenos Aires. We had to split up. Belle also didn’t make it on time. They denied her entry to the consulate. I was the only one successful to get the visa in the shortest period of time. We already had bus tickets for the following day, and Belle had to cancel hers. Nick and I went to Buenos Aires alone, and everyone else was stuck in Santiago.

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A Small Victory for Oxford Buskers

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Under threat of legal action, the Oxford City Council has postponed debate on its most recent Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), proposed in May to rid the Oxford city centre of what they’re calling “antisocial behavior.”

Once only a problem for parents of toddlers and angst-ridden teenagers, antisocial behavior has apparently become a pressing issue in public areas like parks, malls and courtyards. People wander through streets without waving, no one holds doors for anyone else, anad—worst of all—street performers have begun to stay in one place for far too long and ask people for money.

If those don’t sound like criminal matters, to be published with criminal records, it’s because common sense tells us they’re not.

However,  members of the Labour-led city council seem to believe otherwise. If you haven’t been following the story—or have no idea what a Public Space Protection Order is—don’t worry. We’ll do a quick recap before starting things up.

Most of what follows is true.

 

Timeline (speculative):

 

 2014:

January-FebruaryFrigid, unceasing winds blow over England. Days are short; nights are inhospitably long. Government workers have grown downtrodden and disheartened. Sleep is a distant memory.

March (early)Things get slow around the City Council. Members are cranky from the cold and a lack of rest, often bickering for no clear reason. Some make paper airplanes, others resort to coloring books. One particular morning a younger member, (while leafing through old tickets and ordinances for fun), points out that there are, in fact, areas of citizen life that the council has not yet attempted to control.

“They’re called public spaces,” he says, “and they’re everywhere!”

The legislators are ecstatic, and become reinvigorated. Work begins immediately.

13 MarchAfter hours of furious deliberation, the council unveils its first ever Public Space Protection Order. This is a legal document that sets out clear limits on what can and cannot be done in public areas. It allows for the imposition of fines of up to £1,000 ($1,500 USD) for citizens who fail to uphold vague, shifting standards of conduct, and turns previously unsatisfactory actions into criminal offenses.

In the evening, members of the council gather at their windows, listening for the sweet sound of tickets ripping, stopping orders and dying amplifiers. The first citations are written that night, and the council awaits new revenues in suspense.

October The Anti-Social Behavior, Crime and Policing Act becomes law, as do all Public Space Protection Orders.

The council holds a wonderful celebration in the lobby, where chocolate cake, martinis, and raucous laughs at the expense of the public are had in abundance.

2015:

May (early) While leaving Starbucks, one of the senior councilmen encounters Jeff, a local busker, singing a perfectly adequate rendition of Wonderwall. The song rings familiar, and stirs up long-buried memories in the councilman. He is reminded of his ex-girlfriend Karen, who broke his heart and left many years ago with a sofa that they bought together.

He drops his latte and walks back to the city council in a huff, muttering and kicking pebbles the whole way.

12 MayAfter relating his story to the rest of the council, he convinces them that all of these loud, troublesome buskers must be the first item on the following day’s agenda. They agree wholeheartedly, and arrange a group screening of Love Actually.

18 MayThe council posts a preliminary version of its PSPO for Oxford City Centre, along with its existing code of conduct for Oxford buskers.

Johnny Walker, professional street performer and founder of the Keep the Streets Live campaign, reads the document in disgust. He circulates a petition, which gets over 5,000 signatures, and begins speaking out against the measure with other Oxford buskers while wearing a floppy hat.

21 MayLocal street performers engage in a full day of non-compliant busking. Singers, guitarists and accordion players come from all over, in a show of solidarity with Oxford performers. The event is covered by the Oxford Mail, and inspires a flurry of online comments. (One is from the council’s press office.)

23 MayComedian and activist Mark Thomas joins the discussion, taking to the streets in protest alongside local performers. “If you want to do something,” he says in an interview, “use the current laws to catch the criminals that are already out there. Don’t invent a bunch of new silly crimes to criminalize the populace.”

29 MayITV News catches Johnny Walker on camera being confronted by a police officer while busking, though no arrest is made. Both men actually look kind of amused.

The council moves its discussion of the order from June 2nd to June 11th.

11 June (morning)The council receives a letter from civil liberties/human rights group Liberty, in which specific legal action is threatened should the order be passed.

Karen reads the news on her sofa during breakfast. She discusses the matter with her new boyfriend Jeff, who busks with his guitar in the city centre a few days a week. They seem happy.

11 June (evening)Debate on the order is postponed indefinitely…

 

Why This Matters

According to the existing code of conduct, all Oxford buskers in the city centre are required to “smile, enjoy [themselves] and entertain others.” Although this might seem like a silly thing to put on a legal document, we should keep in mind that this list of rules is not presently enforceable by any means.

In fact, before the code was attached to a Public Space Protection Order, it was viewed, along with most everything on it, as a mere list of suggestions. Writing these words on a ‘code of conduct’ didn’t make them legally binding any more than putting them on a dinner menu would’ve made them food.

However, should the order be passed, each of the code’s fourteen points—including strict limits on amplification, a weird ban on blankets, and this bit about smiling—would, theoretically, be enforceable by law.

These rules, if backed by threat of court dates and fines, would effectively forbid any and all non-compulsory action by the citizenry. Under such a vague and capricious set of regulations, “the ruled,” if I may borrow from Christopher Hitchens’ most astute definition of tyranny, “could always be found to be in the wrong.”

Performers would be beholden to subjective standards of what is too loud, too close, and not smiley enough, and threatened with fines for failing to meet them.

The Council’s Response

Although the Oxford City Council’s press office has, in the Oxford Mail’s comment section, assured us that this area of the code “would not be the subject of enforcement action,” they have failed to make such a distinction in any area of the actual written law. And that, as anyone who’s ever been caught with an open container in the United States will tell you, is where it really counts.

In other words, no one’s ever gotten out of punishment for a crime by way of ‘online comment exoneration.’ Whether or not the beat cops actually would impose fines for a lack of smiles or good cheer seems irrelevant, so long as the authorities remain in good legal standing to do so.

“Point four,” writes the council’s representative, “is there to encourage people to regard busking as fun, rather than just a way to make money.”

And that’s at the heart of the council’s attitude towards street performance – the wrong-headed notion that busking falls just short of an actual, productive job. The representative’s comment, while well-intentioned, does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype of street performers as beggars, failures and hopelessly untalented hobbyists.

Can you imagine a doctor being told they have to have fun?

“Look champ, we know you’ve been going at that ruptured organ for a few hours now, but we’d really like you to treat this like it’s more than just your job, yeah? Now wipe up that blood and put a smile on your face before you land yourself a citation.”

Yet it happens to buskers all over the world. Constantly, they’re mentioned in the same breath as gypsies, vagabonds and homeless people. The distinction between busking and begging is attenuated at best, and orders like this one don’t make things any better.

In the language of this very piece of legislation, in fact, making too much noise while singing is listed, quite explicitly, as an offense commensurate with “persistent begging” or “sleeping in public toilets.”

Creating Criminals

Homelessness and poverty remain very important, pressing issues. They can’t be torn up and swept away with the protection order’s pages.

The problem of people who’ve been driven from their homes and forced out onto public streets has plagued civilized society since we’ve had money to beg for and sidewalks to sleep on.

Though we’ve made unprecedented leaps forward in dealing with it, things are still pretty grim.

We’ve got a bunch of people who’ve resorted to begging for change, and—in extreme cases—sleeping in public toilets. No one would argue that this isn’t a problem.

Luckily the council has recognized it, and agreed to act swiftly, in much the same manner as the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa: with criminal charges, court dates, and heavy fines. Now that all the bums know that being homeless is a crime, we should have this whole thing cleared up in a month, right?

A final point—and one that I will not concede—is that the criminalization of poverty and homelessness is an affront not only to the legal system, but to morality and fundamental human decency. We should treat any measure that purports to do so with utter contempt, and take any and all measures necessary to ensure its immediate, much-publicized repeal.

What We Can Do From Here

Nothing.

Freedom of expression is dead, and you’ve all helped kill it. The government won the streets, and they’re going for your thoughts next. Go buy a rifle and start making your tinfoil hat, because we’re finished.

Or.

Our friends from Keep the Streets Live are still alive and kicking. Until every piece of anti-busking legislation is done away with, they’ll have to be. So, you can sign up to their newsletter here, and join their facebook fan page.

You can also sign up to The Busking Project’s mailing list, make an account on busk.co or send us a little donation.

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Bubbles, an Accordion and two Clowns: Montevideo

What could go wrong with some bubbles, an accordion and two Clowns? Nothing. Nothing can go wrong – that’s not foreshadowing, that’s a statement of fact. And there were no surprises here.

In one of the most picturesque places we went on the trip, we filmed these to along the riverside in Montevideo, Uruguay. These two buskers bring joy to children and child-like adults – like me! I love it. Just watch.

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Andy Grammer: Ten Tips for Buskers

949F496C871C7700FBAF14419A6BF3B3201526132629495“So I got this song called Honey, I’m Good.,” says Andy Grammer to a packed house at New York City’s Grammercy Theater, “which I had no idea was gonna be as cool as it is.” He’s been onstage about an hour now, dripping with sweat in a heavy suede jacket, and he’s shown no sign of slowing down.

When the band breaks into the song—a pop-country tinged “relationship anthem” that’s become this year’s breakout hit—you wonder why he couldn’t see it coming. On the first notes, the whole crowd moves forward a foot, singing louder than they did to anything he’s played so far. They clap along to the syncopated backbeat like a baptist congregation, and he delivers the layered melody like their hyped-up preacher on Sunday.

It’s only about halfway through that you see what he was talking about: the foot-stomping hoedown rhythm, the big loud gospel harmonies. It’s been a while since anything this cool has even scratched the bottom of the Top 40, hasn’t it?

“We feel like as long as the song’s good, then go wherever you want to musically,” Grammer told a Milwaukee reporter on the song’s origin. “It was just like, ‘yeah, let’s go there for a second; let’s see what that means.’”

Over a decade-long career, he’s had to develop an acute, almost preternatural sense of what’s going to work. Often, that means going weird places.

It’s one of the skills he picked up on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, where he spent long days busking and selling CDs during his early career. He’d try out covers from all over the musical spectrum, treating the passing crowds like a kind of focus group. From eight o’clock in the morning till as late as ten at night, he’d cast his net wide and see what came back.

“I showed me which songs people liked and which ones they didn’t like,” he told American Songwriter in 2012. “It was a serious hustle.”

Among the tunes that worked were Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 and a distinctive, beatboxed rendition of OneRepublic’s pop-ballad Apologize. He remembers both songs as big turning points for his style. “I saw that people liked the way I sang them and thought, ‘Man I gotta go write ten of those.’”

After cutting a deal with S-Curve records a few months later, he wrote eleven. The songs were bright, acoustic pieces that tied together the best of everything that ever worked for him; on his self-titled LP you’ll find traces of folk, hip-hop and R&B, often within a few seconds of eachother. They became pop radio staples in the summer of 2011, and built him a solid fanbase that’s stuck with him ever since.

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On the album’s closing track—aptly titled The Biggest Man in Los Angeles—Grammer pays tribute to his time spent on the street. The breakdancers, preachers, belly dancers and Chinese bowl flippers that performed beside him are mentioned like old friends and family, and he sings about the boulevard like a childhood home.

Those moments on the street, when the crowd would rock with me,

I felt like the biggest man, the biggest man in Los Angeles,

You see all I really need, for my life to feel complete,

are some ears to hear me dream…

When the song became a hit, he spoke often about busking and how it helped him out, even tweeting ten tips for buskers:

  1.     Work out a unique cover song. Hard to grab attention with originals. If you can get them to stop, chances of tips double.

  2.     Once you have a crowd of 10+, make them cheer “On 3 lets cheer to double the crowd!” People are attracted to cheering.

  3. Location. Location. Corners with a lot of traffic where you aren’t in competition with others. Lack of competition for singers is key.

  4.     Make a tip jar that encourages people to purchase CDs on their own while you’re playing. “Make change I trust you.”

  5.     Put love into your street stage. Small rug, stool, TV dinner table with table cloth. Little touches make it seem more pro.

  6.     Make friends with those louder than you. Fighting for attention means everyone loses. Break dancers, etc. Offer to split time.

  7.     Shorter sets. 15 minutes and stop to sell CDs/clear the crowd. Two hour-sets aren’t needed. Play your best 4-5 songs.

  8.     Don’t beg. You will make more in the end creating demand based on quality. Begging sucks the magic out of the experience.

  9.     Get there early. The best spots go fast. You might have to hold a spot for up to 4 hours. It’s usually first come first serve.

  10.   It’s not them, it’s you! Listen to what crowds tell you. If CDs aren’t selling, switch up your show. It’s a great focus group!

It’s been a few years since he posted these, but it doesn’t look like he’s forgotten any. He’s looking for the same magic onstage at the Grammercy Theater that he was next to the slam-dancers and the monkeys, and by the sound of the crowd, he’s had no trouble finding it.

Send a tweet to Andy Grammer on our behalf!

.@andygrammer we are promoting and celebrating busking, helping defend street performers. we want a selfie from you! http://busk.co/blog/2014/06/call-to-arms-buskingisnotacrime/

 

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De Zakenman

Photo Blog: Holland National Living Statue Competition

Spoedlevering1st prize winners Spoedlevering

In a tiny village called Valkenburg, in the southern Netherlands, there is a living statue competition held every July. Holland has a rich culture of human statues, with many different companies hiring them for events around the country. 30 living sculptures came to compete against each other in Valkenburg this year, and as a living statue myself, I was happy to have a chance to attend to (steal all their secrets and) document the event.

BelmomentBelmoment

Through out the quaint streets were hoards of people around each statue. There was a 5 kilometer walk of 30 different statues scattered throughout the river side pathways in this pastel painted resort town. Each statue was different, and there was a huge range of unique ideas. Some, like Belmoment, were traditional in their metallic styled costumes, but with a great level of detail and always with a slight twist of character that differ from your average street statues.

Eddy Koepler Loses AgainEddy Koepler Loses Again

The festival organizers took great care to place the statues in the right placements around town. This statue Eddy Koepler, fooled me into believe he was a mannequin! It’s not my fault, it was a sweltering hot day so I was delirious, and he was placed outside the bicycle shop. OR, he was just that good.

De ZakenmanDe Zakenman

This man made crowds gasp and scream as he fell backwards into this pose. It’s a great gag, and his stillness was magical also. Take a look at this short Time Lapse to get a better feeling of his act.

Scrooge
Scrooge

Scrooge was my favorite moment of the festival. He forces people who tip him to hold onto his lamp and pose with him. While I was busy taking pictures, this poor woman was tortured into participating! In an attempt to help I tipped him so she could move and leave.  BANG BANG BANG his cane smashes his box as I walk away. He mimes that I have to hold the lamp now. My camera still in my hand, I pick it up and fiddle with my pockets. BANG BANG BANG he ushers me to shush and to stand still.
So I do.
For a long time.
At least it felt long with my arm stretched up.
Finally, after what felt like 5 minutes, someone comes and tips for a picture with Scrooge, and I let go.The whole crowd bursts into applause! Scrooge jokingly gives me a look of contempt for a moment, like I am stealing his show. His character was so perfect for Scrooge. Grumpy and curmudgeon, just like it should be.

Space-ci-man
SPACE-CI-MEN

The competition is judged 50% by public vote and 50% by the judges. Each statue is marked on their costume craftsmanship, interaction with the audience, originality and the movement of the statue when it is alive. The prize is an invitation to attend the World Statue Competition in September, organized and run by the same people, in Arnhem, NL.

SPACE-CI-MEN was fairly original in so far as 5 walking people is tough to pull off! Albeit, he was broken down when I saw him… The construction to make sure this all worked smoothly must have been tough to build. Yet he won 2nd place!
It’s all worth it in the end.

Sing AlongSing Along

Sing along would interact with the audiences by getting them to sing and dance along side them. Their inviting pose was to tell you it’s your turn to perform! Surprisingly, this act had no music to accompany them. It was all mimed. The people of Holland are afraid of mimes, apparently, because they wouldn’t sing or dance. I felt this act needed an actual karaoke machine and some beer to loosen everyone up. Still,  I loved the enthusiasm they gave despite the cold response to their attempts at interaction.

Qin TwinQin Twin

One of the most amusing acts of the festival due to their interaction with the crowds. They would pound their sticks on their blocks 3 times before they closed the gates, but some people thought they could sneak through. Check out the face on the man in the back as the twins close the gates to the path.

Surprise

Surprise! They are alive!

You could open or close the gates if you tipped them, which is amusing if you have an endless pocket of coins…

Ranjakok in het GroenRanjakok in het Groen

This statue was basically ‘selling’ drinks. His costume and his clowning was great (my favorite color! YES! Lime Mimes unite!) However, the schtick to get people to give him tips was much more aggressive than all the other statues, it was too pushy. But, he did some classic clown moves, and was fun. It did warm your heart when he would squeal with happiness after a cute little girl gave him a kiss on the cheek.

PetrusPetrus

He holds the key to heaven. When you tip him, he will bless you by drawing a cross on your forehead (it burns, it burns!) Great costume and a wonderful pose. He held the best stillness of the festival. Also well placed by the gates to cross the river at this castle-esque monument that suited him. Classic statue work, and he did it well.

18e Eeuwese Hertogin
18e Eeuwese Hertogin

Let’s be honest, this festival is a street theater event and is not busking. The festival pays the statues to compete, as does the festival in Arnhem. This statue in particular was not prepared to be tipped and had no tip jar. People continued to want to tip, so they would just throw it at her feet! It suited the character well, and I had laugh watching her try to kneel in her stiff dress to pick up the coins before she went for a break (because I am evil… and because I know what it’s like).

Bronst
Bronst

Bronst the cave man standing on his mini-cave. His movement wasn’t great, he was ‘too human’, but his costume is fabulous! Bronst would hide in his little cave, or invite others to take a photo with him inside it. It was a great use of props and cave-plinth.

 Baron von MunchhausenBaron von Munchhausen

What a character! Both friendly, interactive and fun to watch. Every 5 minutes his canon would sound, he would fall onto the cannon ball beneath him, and the whole plinth would smoke as he continued to ‘ride on the ball’. The level of detail in his costume is impeccable. So many little pieces to ensure the character is believable. The technology to make the smoke machine work is also interesting. I am curious how the steam was timed, or if he has a pedal on the stand which I couldn’t see. Either way, great costume, great fun!

I didn’t catch every statue at the festival, because they would often take breaks to hide from the make-up melting weather. Even doubling back a few times, I unfortunately missed their acts. However, you can find a full album of all the statues here and See the winners here.

Winners of the competition
Photo from the website

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