Chicago Street PerformerMazurka Wojciechowska, from Chicago, IL, contacted us about a shitty experience she had, when another group of buskers set up in front of her and started drowning her out. In our following email exchange, she described a code-of-ethics for buskers. It’s an interesting addition to the debate on how buskers “should” act.

MAZURKA: Your site mentioned you don’t know of any street performers from Chicago. Here I am. I am unusual in that I am a woman, I play the accordion, and I follow the rules, the rules being get a license and don’t amplify.

I had been busking in Chicago for over 20 years. I usually play in a European area called Giddings Plaza, since it’s about the only place in Chicago people really appreciate the music I play, from oom-pah to o-paa. I was busking today, I had just gotten started, when a trio of brazen men with guitars, a drum and amps (against the law) set up right in front of me and proceeded to cover me up. I approached them, told them that was rude and was silently rebuffed.

I’m a professional musician, so I probably don’t need to busk. It’s not like I don’t have performance opportunities, since I have a steady gig at a cabaret and another at a restaurant, plus other freelance gigs. But I like busking because I can show children the accordion, I meet folks who are totally jazzed that I know songs from their countries, and I’ve gotten a few gigs on account of my street performing. After today’s dustup I’m not sure I want to go busking again. It may not be worth it dragging the accordion out if I’m just going to be usurped by dudes who amplify and rudely cover me up. Rant over.

NICK: You say that you are unusual in that you are a woman, that you play the accordion, and that you follow the rules. Which of those three are unusual, and why?

MAZURKA: All of those three are unusual in Chicago.

1) Most buskers are male. I have only seen 2 solo women, and they were in the subway singing along with a track. I have seen the occasional woman playing with guys, but never a solo instrumentalist, like me.

2) The instrument of choice for buskers in Chicago is the guitar. 2nd choice seems to be the violin or sax. I have seen two elderly men playing accordions, and they seemed not to play well, or be ill, or maybe their fingers were cold.

3) This is less unusual; many buskers do have licenses and display them as per regulations. However, some buskers amplify, which is against the rules. Even when I played the hammer dulcimer, which is much quieter than the accordion, I didn’t amplify.

NICK: How do you think being a woman affects your perspective of busking’s hardships and rewards?

MAZURKA: I milk being a woman, actually. I always dress beautifully (in contrast to unkempt, unshaven dudes) and wear a wreath of flowers in my hair. I feel that people approach me without trepidation and let me demonstrate the accordion to their children because I make myself approachable. The hardships (driving to the spot, looking for parking, and schlepping my instrument, a chair and a few other things) are not affected by my being a woman because anyone can do it, man or woman. They’re more affected by the fact that I’m only 5’1″.

NICK: What do you think of other buskers?

MAZURKA: I think buskers – especially soloists – have a lot of courage. It takes guts to go out and perform for an audience that didn’t exactly invite you.

NICK: Would you be in favour of a universal buskers’ code of ethics? If so, what would be your main items?

MAZURKA: I guess I would be in favour of it, but it would be voluntary and those without ethics would break it anyway. Main items:

  • respect the space if someone else is already there and move along
  • play diverse material, in other words, do not play “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” 20 times in a row because you don’t know anything else
  • keep noise levels reasonable.
  • always thank people who give tips and be polite even if someone gives you a religious tract instead of a tip.

NICK: You mentioned that you might not busk again. What would make you keep going?

MAZURKA: I get mad but I don’t stay mad. I decided to take the rest of the season off from busking because I had plenty of other gigs. I’m pretty sure I’ll go back to it next spring. One thing that would sweeten the pot is if people stood up for me when something like the aforementioned incident happened, or if I had a “roadie” or supporter who came with me. That would just make it a lot easier and less scary. I am terrified of busking, especially busking alone, but I do it anyway.