The talent, variety and diversity of Scotland’s street musicians is set to be captured in a new BBC ALBA series.
Buskers, produced by BBC Gàidhlig, looks at possibly the toughest stage of all on which to learn your musical trade – on your own, on the streets. Each episode delves into the lives of current and former street artists with input from recording artists such as Eddi Reader and the busker’s biggest critic and supporter, the public.
From young to, well, not so young, you can find every form of street artist, whether solo artists to full bands, fire jugglers to dancers, on the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh. There are many reasons as to why buskers find themselves performing on the city streets, and Buskers is on a mission to find out why.
So, what is the life of a busker like and how many of them actually ‘make it’?
Spotted on Sauchiehall Street, Dutch saxophonist, Sybren Renema, is a regular performer on the streets of Glasgow. Sybren explains: ‘I just seemed to fall into this lifestyle, having graduated from university. I’m out most days and I have so many stories about my experiences, but I hope my parents won’t hear about them.’
At the tender age of 14, Murdo Mitchell, from Johnstone, has not only become a busking sensation but also an internet one. He writes his own material and his numerous video postings on YouTube and Facebook attract a healthy following. He is passionate about music and far more interested in busking than his school work.
Buskers opens the door on this often misunderstood lifestyle – often amusing but always entertaining with fascinating anecdotes and performances from the famous and those striving for fame.
Buskers starts on BBC ALBA on Monday 22 October at 22.30 and each consecutive Monday thereafter. It is repeated on Fridays at 22.00.
Street culture up close and personal
Some years ago I spent some intensive time observing the street artist community on one of England’s major cities. I won’t name it as I wouldn’t want HMRC reps to get on a train there.
What did I learn?
It’s a highly competitive culture on all fronts:
- t0 to get the best spots on the streets
- to get them at the best times of the day
- to get the audience to be seen give you a bigger ‘hat’ than the competition
- to see off the opposition by fair means or foul
It’s a very secretive culture – for example, no performer lets another know what ‘hat’ he or she is taking. There’s pride and the protection of position bound up in this.
I was there by the introduction of a friend who was a street performer. All of the street acts therefore knew who I was and that I was there to observe and learn. Some of them trusted me with information they wouldn’t have told their mates and which I didn’t share with anyone, not even my friend.
It’s a culture that is ‘other’ by its nature – very ‘us and them’. It attracts to itself an exotic blend of eccentric professionals, often highly intelligent and well educated – I met a lawyer and a university lecturer; drop outs, alcoholics and ‘lost boys’; hippies – or ‘crusties’ – often with no more than entry level skills in whatever they do, bumping along earning little, often with a dog as a companion and usually mildly into the drug culture. Sometimes this makes them unpredictable, even aggressive.
The street performers look down on the ‘crusties’ for their low skill levels and give them a wide berth for their occasionally threatening tendencies.
The performers that do fire breathing are not always nice to know. Their breath smells of fuel and God knows what their food tastes like.
This is a culture that floats on cash.
A few senior performers declared their earnings. Most do not. This means they can’t bank them so they secrete them in all sorts of places known only to themselves, often not where they’re staying but assured of privacy.
The best performers, in the high season, can earn considerable amounts of money in, say, three shows a day. So, with large cash stashes around, most spend to keep them down. This makes for a very gadget conscious culture, with the latest games and widgets another point of competition.
Street artists live in a world at once highly visible and invisible, Like teachers at school, we don’t imagine they have an existence outside the one we see. This makes them fascinatingly shadowy figures who materialise and vanish at will.
They see a world we can’t – because what they see is us.
I noticed that the pavement artists never lifted their heads to see those gathering around watching them work, not even when they put money in the hat.
But they could not be unaware of the world they were silently interacting with and earning from. So what did they see and how did they interpret it? It had to be based around feet, ankles and movement.
I asked a pavement artist in the pub during his downtime what sort of world he was aware of around him. His face brightened. ‘I a;ways know which country they’re from.’ ‘How?’ ‘By their shoes and by what they put in the hat’.
I thought he meant that different cultures tended to wear different types of shoes – like maybe Americans are very trainer-oriented? But no. It was more embarrassing, if you’re a Brit.
It turned out that Americans had the best cared-for footwear, impeccably clean, polished, whitenened – whatever. Italians were the most glamorous with young eastern europeans well up there. We Brits were the worst – dishevelled, grubby, well worn.
Contrary to myth in both cases, the Germans were the most generous and the Americans the meanest, with the Brits somewhere in between.
The best street acts are structured strategically to attract, enchant or engage and then to seduce generosity. There is always ‘the hat line’ – a well tested line before – but not necessarily directly before – the artist passes the hat. People tend to get their money ready in good time because they don;t know when they’ll be asked for it. So, in salesfolk’s terms, the earlier and disguised ‘close’ can be a neat device.
This is not, of course, how the street musicians – or most of them – work, relying on instrument cases big enough for tossed coins to land safely.
This is a fascinating world – full of creativity, physical and artistic skills, manipulation and drama – fire juggling and fire breathing, escapology, magic…. It has its dark sides. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of the BBC ALBA series.