There is nothing more fun than playing music in a beautiful street corner with a few people around you enjoying themselves. There is actually no strong busking culture in Greece but good weather and the relaxed summer atmosphere -especially in tourist destinations- provide a great context for playing in the street. There is no clear legislation or policy on busking and nobody is really authorized to issue a busking permit. The course of your performance in practice depends on whether someone decides to call the police on the grounds of being disturbed by your music (or ‘noise’ as a nearby shopkeeper once said of our playing while we were busking last summer). However, I believe that the overall success and social acceptance of your performance mostly depends on the quality of your music and your overall social attitude.
Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane used to play in the street like so many other great unknown musicians around the world. Many of them have testified the huge benefits of this experience. Busking offers all the benefits of formal live performance and even more, without the typical anxiety or pressure musicians often experience before and during a formal gig. A nice spot away from car traffic and some basic repertoire is all you need to get started. Narrow streets are really appropriate since they offer good acoustics without the need of any amplification -which I don’t like anyway because it can be intrusive and unfriendly to the ear. Playing acoustically for a bunch of people is really a great scale for performing and listening. It is intimate, honest and encourages people to meet and interact in a healthy context. While busking you can attempt your most crazy improvisations, talk to a beautiful girl while your guitarist is soloing or quote a famous nursery song the moment a kid is passing by. Every busking experience is a new territory for fun, musical and social exploration.
By definition your audience is comprised of socially and culturally diverse people unlike the typical audience in a jazz club or any live venue. Children, families, teenagers, elderly and homeless are all potential listeners, and most likely many of them have never been introduced to the music you might be playing. This element of surprise is one of the things that make busking so great. Childlike curiosity, genuine interest, parents ordering their kids to keep walking and even open discrediting of what is going on are images of human manifestations made possible when playing music in public space. When people turn around the corner and listen to you playing they are more likely to be sincere and spontaneous in their reactions. And I honestly believe that whether people appreciate your music or not, it definitely adds meaning to their evening walk just because people are simply desperate for stories. There they have a story and you are part of it.
Another aspect I find interesting in the busking ritual is the fact that it tends to ignite social interaction and often encourages us to manifest ourselves in a variety of ways.
Watch this woman in the photo holding a lifestyle magazine while she is kicking a girl playing her accordion for a few euros. Apparently she did not like this girl being near her shop. (This photo was taken just under the Acropolis in Athens earlier this year by Associated Press photographer Dimitris Messinis). The scene is exasperating but it also stands as direct evidence of my point that just the image of a little girl playing music led this woman to manifest herself in a certain way, whereas otherwise she would pass as a good mannered middle class shopkeeper. The social value of busking lies exactly in this: It can touch upon issues of freedom, cultural appreciation and co-existence.
Above all, when we busk we are building an example of unmediated social relations with our listeners. In the street you can be pretty sure that when people appear thankful and express their gratitude, they most likely mean it. By the same token, the reaction of the shopkeeper, who came up to us complaining for the noise we were making, rightfully belongs to the wide spectrum of possible feedback we should expect. I truly welcome these remarks not because I trust everyone’s musical criteria but because I feel that they help me stay in touch with a reality that -fairly or unfairly- often devalues artistic attempt and creation. Hiding in a jazz bar with jazz fans is not the real picture, although I certainly understand the need for it.
I have described the ritual of busking as a healthy social context -and I believe it is definitely healthier than the sterilized streets people walk up and down every day going to work and all the other rituals we participate in, like job interviews or even concert hall performances. In my mind that’s why children feel so comfortable being around it, and that’s why they naturally end up being the best and most devoted listeners of all. Busking is just great for children. It is fun, lively and provides a world of visual and auditory stimuli just like the ones children are so thirsty for. Watch the excitement of this child while we were busking on the island of Antiparos last summer.
I have had a great time busking, I have met great people while doing it and I encourage all musicians to give it a try.