Late at night while walking recently through Covent Garden, London, I was stopped in my tracks by the sweetest voice I had heard in a long while. Signaling my friend, we set off to find the source.
All we could see was a crowd of dancing people but we managed to squeeze in and found the source of the singing was a diminutive figure of a girl with blonde hair, a backing track playing on a CD player and a microphone. She was grinning, hugely enjoying herself and treating the crowd to some of the most beautiful singing imaginable. I forget even the names of the songs she sang, as I was simply captivated by her energy and voice. During a brief hiatus between tracks I spoke to her. She is Sarah-Jane Lavelle, a Londoner, 19 years old and regular busker at Covent Garden. She has had parts in shows like Bugsy Malone and travels the country singing at small events and festivals, performing mainly cover versions or songs from the '50s to the '90s. She is recording her first album, but her favorite place to perform is in the square at Covent Garden.
The attraction of street music is its spontaneity. It is all about that interaction you can only get up close and personal. If you record music, you can overdub, rerecord and try again, but liveor on the streetthere is no chance of a rewind; what the listener gets, they get, warts and all.
London is a Mecca for street performers, some licensed, some not. All kinds of tricks, feats and performances are taking place on the street, some to the delight of the crowd, some to their annoyance but occasionally you come across a real talent, such as Sarah-Jane, who is playing the streets, honing her craft, getting crowd reactions in the rawest sense and who may or may not be whisked away to perform in larger gigs but, for the moment, is happy doing what she loves best on the most vibrant stage of all the street.
From violinists, flute players and saxophonists to drummers, dancers and strange dummies moving to ethereal sounds, London provides almost every kind of music genre for free ( apart from a "voluntary" donation of a couple of pounds in the hat when it inevitably comes round). There is even operaCovent Garden has a sunken restaurant where you can look down from a balcony and hear opera sung by students from music schools, sometimes soloists, sometimes duets or larger groupscomplete with small orchestra. Where else can you get such good quality entertainment for next to nothing? The powers that be understand the importance of street music and if you travel on the London Underground there are areas set aside for buskers where you can be entertained by really good players (usually).
London is not the only place where buskers provide the public with some excellent sounds. I am lucky to live in an area gifted with a lot of musical talent, largely due to the proximity of Snape Maltings and the Pears Britten School of Music, but not all our local buskers come from there. My local high street, only about 600m long, can sometimes have 3 or 4 buskers, strategically placed so they do not interfere with each others' sounds. Last week we had a saxophonist playing jazz and covers of rock songs , a wonderful guitarist of around 16 years who beat his guitar like a drum and played some extraordinary Flamenco; next was a French horn player playing "Annie's Song," with exquisite tone and feeling and, finally, a vocalist who could have done with a good backing tape. If you are careful you can position yourself so that within a few paces, you get brilliant jazz sax one side and Flamenco rhythms from the guitar the other. It doesn't get much better than that when you're shopping.
We have on occasion a small band of saxophonists and clarinetists who play a selection of jazz standards with an Eastern flavorthey even wear fez hats."The Pink Panther" played à la Arab is amazing. Cambridge provides an interesting collection of street entertainers, steeped as it is in musical history and with many venues offering jazz, classical and opera, the street is also a lively arena. There is one manSock Manwho has glove puppets (made from socks) on his hands and the puppets "sing" jazz standards and other songs to the crowd. He is awful and tuneless but became something of a cult figure a few years ago. Cambridge also has groups offering '60s covers, jazz ensembles, brass bands and students who busk, providing classical interludes among the cafes, shops and college spires.
Street music is important and a great place for musicians to cut their teeth. "If you can handle a hostile crowd," one told me, "you can handle anything. I get regular gigs but I still love playing on the street because you are so close to the reactions of your listeners. It is immediate, it can be intense and sometimes you get a drunken idiot trying to upstage you but generally, people are really appreciative and you know if you get a number right."
For many, the idea of performing on the street is scary but I can understand why musicians enjoy it. One veteran saxophonist told me once, "The buzz of seeing someone's eyes nearly pop out of their skull when I play free jazz they've never heard before or when you see tears in a woman's face while you play a song is like nothing on earth and you cannot get it to the same extent at a gig with the stage and space between you (whether they cry because you play good or bad is another matter)."
A great thing about street music too is choice. You can stay and listenor not. A few years back I took some people from Japan to Edinburgh and they really wanted to hear bagpipes. Spotting a busker in Princes Street preparing to play his pipes I made sure we were in position as he began. Suffice to say, the sound of the pipes was not what they expected and after a few moments of utter consternation one of the group practically begged me to take them some place far, far away.
Street music can be raw, it can be excellent but if offers another avenue for players, it allows them to try new ideas and ways of playing and see how people react. It gives them exposure, pays (a little) and, most importantly, it makes music part of every body's life.
Street music brings life to our streets; it injects vitality and change in areas which are becoming ever more generic and bland with chains and standard looking buildings. It makes people smile, stop for a while, communicate and listen. If you watch the crowd around a good street musician you can see their faces, the smiles, the interactions as they catch other peoples' eyesinteractions which have come about only because of the music.
Some street players only do it as a temporary measure, others do it in the hope of being discovered, but others still return to the streets even when they have achieved success because there is nothing quite like the buzz, the up-close-and-personal and the sheer delight of playing their music.
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