Sunday, April 14, 2013


by Drew Martin
Today I watched Buskers, a documentary about the acts and lives of street performers. It is a pretty candid portrayal of the scene. It takes a certain kind of person to endure the harsh conditions of this day-to-day, dollar-by-dollar (euro by euro, etc.) existence where a good "spot" is defended tooth and nail, and the future means tomorrow. All the buskers say they do it for the freedom, as well as the interaction with the audience. One guy compares it to an extended orgasm. Another guy says it is the only way he can interact with people. During and after a good act, they feel liberated and loved. Some even say they feel god-like. A bad act creates a feeling of complete dejection because street performers are selling themselves so it is a very personal rejection. A few people call it a house of cards. Bad weather, by-the-book cops, and homeless guys who run off with a day's earnings are a few reasons to think twice about ever wanting to depend on street performance for a living. But the liberty, whim of travel, and the fact that this is most immediate way to perform keep most buskers hooked. One busker spoke about the magic of showing up on a nondescript slab of concrete, setting up his act, and performing as a higher calling.

My own brush with busking started at school. I invented and made the typar, a 40+ stringed instrument constructed from an old, manual typewriter, piano pegs, guitar strings, a tiny amplifier and  scrapwood. I played it by typing on the typewriter and it sounded something like a twangy sitar, hence the term I coined, typar. I made it and showed it in my honors program exhibition in 1991 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and I played it at a few gigs around town, but those seemed too prepared so I took it out in buskers' fashion and played it on campus. About a year later, in Europe, I created a snake-charming act with a puppet snake in order to make money after being mugged. I think what I liked most about it was plopping down in a buskers' zone where the performances were pretty routine. My act was quirky and poked fun a little at the kids who performed Beatles songs all day to shake the tourists of their money. I never made a lot of cash but was most amused when I got coins from countries where real snake-charming was an actual thing. I performed mainly in parts of Spain, and then in Prague. I did it a couple days in Amsterdam as well. Once I was walking down the street in my get-up and an American woman saw me and remarked to her girlfriend, "I love Amsterdam!" The biggest rush was getting over the fear of performing in public, until it became routine. It is a pretty empowering feeling to break the rules of how you are supposed to conduct yourself in public. Seeing Buskers today sent shivers down my spine. I do not know how people can maintain that way of life for long.

Click here to watch the trailer for Buskers.