It started off quite innocuously. I had ventured into town to meet up with somebody with regards to getting involved in a musical project and, afterwards, decided to have a wander about. I don’t often go into the centre but whenever I do I always seem to be struck by a feeling of pride to be a resident of York.
Anyway, I bumped into a friend and ended up chatting for a few minutes while, I’m fairly certain, we were both also partially listening to a busker across the street. When we parted I crossed over and dropped a couple of quid into his guitar case, receiving a mid-song smile and a, “Thank you” as I did. As I was cycling home it struck me that buskers are, perhaps, some of the unsung heroes of the York music scene, performing at interchanging venues for audiences that comprise of people who might not notice them, ignore them, catch snatches of songs or stand for a while to hear more. People walk past buskers all the time, some dropping coins seemingly automatically. Conversely, others stop and listen, sometimes simply walking off after the “free” entertainment.
But what motivates the buskers? Are they all in it for whatever cash they can make? Do they have bigger aspirations? Where do they come from and what do they like/dislike about busking? Would any of them be willing to be interviewed to put their stories across?
As is usual with me, the idea led to self-doubt but I decided to run it past a friend and fellow music fan. Unsurprisingly, knowing him as I do, he thought that there was mileage in the idea and encouraged me to pursue it, even offering help and support. And so a mini-project was born.
A few days later I ventured into town again, this time with the intention of tracking down some buskers and asking if they would like to be involved. Despite it being overcast and a bit chilly when I set off, by the time I reached the centre blues skies were in evidence and there were plenty of people about, eating lunches in the sunshine and wandering around the streets. I headed off down Petergate, towards where I had seen the busker at the same time a few days earlier, thinking that it might be a regular spot. Sadly the only music in evidence was a sort of twinkly piano sound coming through an open shop doorway and the busker was nowhere in sight. To be fair, he would probably have been drowned out by the various roadworks going on in the vicinity. The same was true in Kings Square, where phase two of the almost universally maligned revitalisation project had started. Wandering around the places I knew were favourite spots I didn’t come across a single act, until reaching St Helen’s Square where a lone saxophonist was playing what to my untrained ears sounded more like a collection of notes than a tune. Jazz, I’m assuming. After a while he switched to something a little livelier, at least briefly. It’s not quite what I’m looking for as a first contact but I dropped some coins, filed him away for a possible future and headed home.
At the beginning of this week, however, one of York’s most famous buskers announced on their Facebook page that they would be playing for most of the day and I decided to have another go at getting some contacts. It was a lovely Spring day and, once again, the centre was busy. As I crossed St Helen’s Square, the saxophonist, this time accompanied by somebody on a cajon, was playing his jazz again. I wandered down Parliament Street and came across the Facebook-advertising busker surrounded by a sizeable crowd. She was thanking them for listening and starting a new song so I carried on, with the intention of coming back later.
A little further on, outside All Saints Church, a man was noodling out some Blues-y tunes on an electric guitar, partnered by a bass player. It was light, intricate, engaging and I stopped to listen for a while. When he took a break I made my way over and explained my idea, asking whether he would be interested in being involved. His name is Lech. Both he and the bass-player (whose name, I realise afterwards, I had somewhat rudely not asked) are Polish and although, being honest, he seemed a little bemused by the whole thing we swapped contact details with the aim of arranging a meeting later.
I headed back down Parliament street, and found the busker there – Beth McCarthy, currently appearing on the BBC’s The Voice – tucking into a sandwich and took the opportunity to have a chat. After congratulating her on getting through the “Battle Round” of The Voice and explaining that her competing in it was forcing me to watch a talent show that I would normally stay clear of, I asked whether she would also be interested in being interviewed. She smilingly agreed and, rather than asking for her contact details (which could have been construed as “creepy”) I left her with mine, hoping she would get in touch. She also gave me some ideas as to other buskers I should be looking out for.
In Davygate a guitar and cajon duo who I hadn’t seen before were playing, but I decided to pass them by for now, not wanting to have too long a list on possible contacts without knowing how soon I could start getting together with people. However, back in St Helen’s Square the jazz combo seemed to have moved on and had been replaced by Toby Burras, the guy who had sparked my idea in the first place. Given his unintentional role it would have been rude not to try to get him on board early on, so I stopped and listened for a while and heard laid back acoustic versions of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers before wandering over and asking the inevitable question. I’m not sure whether it was the idea of somebody taking an interest in buskers or a dodgy strap that caused him to drop his guitar (I’m hoping the latter) but while he was retuning it he quite enthusiastically agreed, once again, contact details were swapped.
At present, I don’t know how many of these possible interviews will come off. I suspect Toby is my best shot at the moment. Beth has yet to get in touch but is, I suspect, quite busy. Hopefully, if I can get one interview completed and posted/published, it might start the ball rolling with others. There are a number of buskers I haven’t managed to see yet and, with the weather turning warmer, more potential for them to be out and about.
So, watch this space – among the reviews, there might just end up being something new.
There’s a somewhat middle eastern looking 4 piece jazz band I see playing from time to time who’re really rather good. I would be interested to hear their story.