What Is Busking?
An article about busking written by Margarita for La Revista de la Asociación Hispano-Helena de Atenas – a magazine published in Greece for the Spanish speakers.
Rythm of Athens Busking
You have seen them many times- in Monastiraki Square or on the traffic lights. Maybe even in an obscure corner of the city. Maybe you have even dropped some coins into their hat. But have you ever wondered who they are and why did they decide to entertain the audience in the street?
A busker can be a musician, juggler, clown, actor, improviser, dancer, acrobat etc. Buskers entertain passers-by and collect ‘tips’. Unfortunately for many it is closely associated with begging.
I have asked a couple of buskers: Detroit Jimmy and Bob Boyle aka Strum and Strummerer their opinion on the topic.
“Generally speaking”- according to Bob Boyle-“ the busker, as a beggar has a need (money- who doesn’t?). Unlike the beggar the busker enters into a 2-way transaction with the audience. There is an exchange and a communication. The busker offers his talent and performance with no demands or expectations and in return, the audience, if they feel moved to, shows their appreciation by offering something in return. By giving, the audience validates the performance of the buskers and gives them the confidence that what they are doing is worthwhile. Even a smile or nod of the head can communicate this- that the busker is valued and appreciated.”
Detroit Jimmy says:” I actually agree it’s kind of like begging. Sometimes I don’t understand why people give us money for playing music. But then I try to focus on the music itself, the happiness I feel and the pleasure it brings just to be singing and playing my favourite music. Then the money doesn’t matter, the begging feeling goes away, the music comes out better and you actually, usually, make more money that way. Most of us on the street chose to practise our profession on the street and see it as the best way to reach out to everybody.”
Street performance is not only about money. It’s one of the best ways to reach people and learn how to interact with them. Young performers can share their talent, gain first objective feedback and sharpen up their skills. Professional musician can test their new material and increase their confidence. Sometimes you have just seconds to get people’s attention. They can like you and stop, ignore or hate. We look to promote busking culture and show people how to enjoy the city more.
For example buskinginathens.com is a way to facilitate interaction between the people and the performers. Anyone seen taking pictures or videos of any performer is offered a business card with the website so that they can upload their photos and share their experiences. Although the website is relatively new, there are numerous photos, videos and profiles of the performers and their respective audience.
The whole idea behind the website buskinginathens.com began in December 2010, when a group of random musicians from all over the world started playing together. As Detroit Jimmy can attest to from personal experience “with busking I’ve met and played with musicians from all over the world. Christmas Time in Athens on Ermou street is something we still talk about. Musicians from at least 7 different countries with everything from electric violin to percussion to guitars (classic, acoustic and 12-string) played until 8 in the morning for a week. It was also a great meeting point because we were able to include some buskers and musicians in general who normally were too shy to play in front of people.” Detroit Jimmy also added “but for me, the best is when children become mesmerized with the whole scene and either stare with wide open eyes, or let loose and begin to shake it with the best of ‘em.”
It has also been noted that sometimes, the cultures and musicians are so diverse, the only language they share is that of music. When you notice that is the case, it’s difficult not to smile. There are many times, however, when you won’t be able to notice that it’s the first time this group of people have ever played together. And that’s the beauty of music. Even more that’s the beauty of any performance given with the heart on the streets- it’s shared and appreciated by most, if not all.
Many famous artists have busked while waiting for their chance to shine. You will be surprised that Bob Dylan, Damien Rice, B B King, Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman, Edith Piaf, James Morisson – just to name a few- started like that. The story of Glen Hansard, a Dublin musician who started on Grafton street and won an Oscar for Best Song co-written with Marketa Irglova a couple of years later, is an example of the most inspirational musical fairyles.
“Fortune and fame are not the only things you find on the streets”
Busking dates back to antiquity. The English term busking has its roots in the Spanish verb buscar-street performers are searching for fortune and fame. “Fortune and fame are not the only things you find on the streets” chuckled Bob Boyle. ‘Playing on the street is mulit-faceted. Every time the busker plays there is a different audience, hence a different experience. It is totally unpredictable! They never know who they will meet, who will stop, listen and share a story. It is an adventure!” Bob continues “the busker is exposed to the whole gamut of society’s personalities from the sublime to the ridiculous. They are unwaveringly in the public glare and subject to its collective foibles, joys and disappointments. It can be a roller-coaster ride!”
“Though it can be stressful in many ways- physically, mentally and socially (hard to keep a girlfriend in this business)” adds Detroit Jimmy with a smirk “I think I speak for both of us when I say we prefer playing on the street as opposed to playing in most bars. It’s just a different feel, that’s all. But let’s see if we still think that way when we make it big.”
But Strum and Strummerer are just one of the many acts seen here in Athens. On Ermou Street, the main shopping street in Athens, you can meet buskers 24 hours a day. Kapnikareas Church is a perfect place to enjoy art and meet new friends. It’s a very special place in middle of town. You can meet there a huge variety of people. Many of them even have their loyal audience who come there every day to enjoy their performances.
“When I see talented people it motivates me to work hard. I want to do things that other people cannot”.
“My aim is to understand people”- admits Mohamed, a juggler who has been in Athens for a couple of months – “I work in the street and I meet new friends every day. I’m curious about their lives. I like talking to strangers and get to know them better. It makes me a better person. The world is full of ignorance. I would like to change it. I like showing people new tricks and make them happy”. Mohamed was taught juggling by Matthew, traveller from the U.S.-“When I see talented people it motivates me to work hard. I want to do things that other people cannot”. You can also see Mohamed down at Kapnikareas Church nearly every day when he’s not working. He’s usually there practicing, making the people smile, especially little children, and meeting jugglers of all disciplines.
By being a constant presence in the city, many of the audience notice the improvement in skill, or new acts or songs. This brings a renewed appreciation for the artists, which in turn fuels the desire to bring out the best you have. New and inspiring acts can be discovered in nearly every corner of Athens. Ermou Street is by no means the only strip where you can find buskers. Apostolo Pavlou, which changes names to Dionysiou Aeropagitou, is a pedestrian walkway which circles the Acropolis and is rich in street performances from traditional Greek music and instruments, to modern, international music, to clowns and jugglers of every discipline.
The most important thing to remember is that buskers choose to make their living on the streets. Money is not the only way to show your appreciation of a busker’s talent. A smile, a wave or a nod of the head can often encourage an artist as much as a coin. Though not accepted by everyone, it’s not difficult to see why some people might choose this way of life. It offers a freedom and stability by being able to move from place to place to earn a living. They’re able to express themselves in a way that connects with many diverse people, and usually it looks like they’re having fun.
So don’t be afraid to approach a street performer to talk to him or her. Just remember some basic rules for engagement:
1) Wait for the performer to finish the act or acknowledge you first. It’s not nice interrupting someone
2) While waiting, try not to stand directly in front of the performer. Remember that he/she is performing for the whole street AND you might give them the evil eye and cause them to make an error.
3) Unfortunately not all buskers are open for dialogue at all times, so don’t let an experience with a grumpy busker tarnish your perspective- we all have bad days.
If you’re ever in Athens, it is definitely recommended that you take some time to walk around the city seeing the ancient monuments and museums of course, but on your way from the Agora to Plaka, or Syntagma to Monastiraki, or wherever remember to take some time to appreciate the living history of modern Athens. After all, isn’t Greece where Drama and Theater were invented, if not perfected? Street performance or Busking, is simply the present result of the compilation of all that rich history, delivered in a way that is meant to reach as many people as possible. Especially here in Athens…
Many thanks to Jimmy and Bob for their contribution and to Irene D.C. for translating this article to Spanish.