The Gypsy Queens on mopeds

A few short years ago, Didier Casnati (guitar and lead singer) could be found passing an ashtray around after busking gigs in restaurants, marinas and town squares. Now, alongside Manuel Polin (drums), Jay Metcalf (saxophone), Jason King (contrabass) and Anders Klunderud (guitar), The Gypsy Queens have taken what they learned on the streets and, through commercial success, have made it more accessible to us all.

Their flip from buskers/freelancers to recorded artists is cute. One night two years ago, the band were playing their usual gig at Nice’s Le Petite Maison when in walked Nick Raphael, then working for Sony, now the newly-installed president of a re-born London Records.

“Nick was with his wife,” Didier smiles. “And she wasn’t keen at first, she just wanted a quiet night with her husband! But by song two she was on the table dancing.” Bono was also in the restaurant that night, and he and Didier were swapping jokes during the show. “That definitely made Nick wonder who the hell I was,” Didier says.

“I’m the DJ of a live band!” Didier laughs. “But it’s busking that made me so aware of what people want to hear. I can sense people’s movements and I know how to listen. I negotiate and tease people with songs, except I don’t play the hits of today, I reach back to songs they might not even know they wanted to hear.”

The Busking Project has had the privilege of interviewing Didier, Manuel, Jay, Jason and Anders about their busking history. If you haven’t heard them already, they’re a gorgeous group who play beautiful songs with relish and delight. See their music and interviews here.

Interview with The Gypsy Queens

We all came to busk for different reasons. Didier and Anders were making their living through busking before they met. Jason was playing in Nice with a couple of other bands, and met Didi in a bar. Manuel met the band in the South of France. And Jay had been playing in bands before, but learned to busk with TGQ on the job. As Didi says, busking is on-the-job training. “There’s no school for it, you learn it on the streets.”

Our first fears were common: rejection, rain and a bucket being thrown out of the window onto us. But the biggest fear is rejection. We’ve never been fined or arrested. One of the tricks that we’ve always used is to busk wearing suits and not look like the sort of buskers that would get moved along by police and often, the police will be there and they’ll be listening and then they’ll go and move along someone else.

One of the rules is, when the cops come you don’t stop playing: smile to them and just make them have fun with everyone else. You have to have everyone on your side, even the cops.

Both as solo buskers and as a band of buskers, I think we’ve been very lucky. Didi once had his guitar stolen, but a restauranteur was just having a joke with him. Really, TGQ only have good memories of performing on the streets. And even if it seems awful at the time, you laugh about it later, and those hard times can turn into great stories.

For example, we were in Liverpool recently and somebody threw a soda at us (they missed). We had a big crowd of people that were really enjoying the music and then there were these kids, around five to ten years old, who’d been on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. They were shouting “we’re the real Gypos!”

Other than that, we’ve had a few busker wars over the years (arguing over who’s going to play where), but it’s mainly been all positive. With busking, there are genuine ethics; you got to respect the rules, and respect each other as a community.

The people we have played for opened our eyes, took us traveling, and showed us a certain way of living. Some of us have played in bands and proper concert halls, but we’ve learnt the most about relating to an audience from playing on the streets. Busking is direct and you get paid according on how well you do. It’s not like you arranged a payment before and then you show up and you do your best. If you don’t do a good job, if you don’t please the people, you see in it how much money is in the hat.

I think we can read the audience, we can read the crowd in a way that I think you can only do once you have busked. Even now, when we’re playing on stages in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands, we don’t have a set list: we don’t really plan what songs we’re doing. We just look at the audience and scan.

Busking has taught us everything. Absolutely everything. We are the buskers of 10 years ago, except today we have a label behind us and we’re doing a record. Otherwise we are exactly the same thing. I hope we got a little better at it, in ten years or more. Other than that, the core is absolutely busking.

Unfortunately, popular opinion about busking is terrible. People get the wrong message. Admittedly we’re now a different sort of busking band, as we’re choosing to do this. So many buskers aren’t doing this out of choice, they’re doing it out of necessity. But generally, we’ve always felt that there is a certain level of sadness in busking, and many performers project that loneliness or misery to the public. It doesn’t really work. We always had a rule of playing happy music, to make people happy, and to connect with people through joy.

After all, busking is free – and it’s freedom of expression. It should be promoted more: imagine a city that has no free music!

We were in Aspen last winter and I was looking at this beautiful city which would have been the perfect little haven for busking, but it’s illegal. So many people were sad about that fact. It creates a life to a city. And musicians should busk because it is where you get good at your craft: you don’t need to go on a talent show. Everyone who plays is full of stories, and we need to protect those stories. This is a very old European tradition that goes back to the middle ages.

A lot of great things happen on the streets.