Saturday, 23 January 2010

The City as a Stage - Busking culture in Manchester

A LATE afternoon in January. At this time of day, the city would normally be packed with shoppers and workers, rushing about. But the city centre is all but silent. The pavements have been taken over by blocks of snow, which, refusing to shift for over a week, have worn smooth into ice. Workers have been sent home early, the city centre has ground to a halt. Those few people braving the treacherous streets do so through a wet fog of snow showers. The city’s still, the atmosphere oppressive. But one thing is going on as normal. The dreadlocked busker is still installed in a shop doorway on Market Street. The notes of a thumb-piano-esque African instrument follow you, clinging like the powdery snow that’s sticking to your face and eyelashes. Plip plopping, rising and falling in repetitive pitter-pattering sequences, his notes fight their way through the muffled air. It’s not weather to be tarried in, hence the deserted streets, and his fingers must be freezing, but still he’s playing on. It’s eerie and beautiful.

Manchester is known as a musical city. You can go and see bands any night of the week. But what about the city’s other musical culture, the one that’s on the streets, open to everyone? These are the bands you stumble across during your lunch hour, that stop you in your tracks and leave you with a smile on your face for the rest of the day.

Street performance may raise associations of earnest buskers with acoustic guitars playing predictable covers, and we often walk straight past them, but there’s variety and skill in Manchester street performers. Some greats of twentieth century music like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell started their careers on the streets, and in Manchester one performer who’s gone on to find fame is the former Britain’s Got Talent winner, teenager George Sampson from Warrington, who used to draw big crowds on Market Street with his dancing.

Yes, there are guitarists churning out Dire Straits, an in-your-face Christian rap group and the slightly naff people dressed as Native Americans who play panpipes along to a backing track, but Manchester’s other performers range from African drummers to a trumpet and accordion jazz band and a man playing the intricate West African music of the Kora. One of the most unusual is the saxophonist who seems to only come out at night, often outside Kendal’s department store on Deansgate or, most strangely, amongst the damp and pigeon poo in a railway arch by round the back of Piccadilly train station. Add that to painters, human statues and even just people protesting or trying to raise awareness of a cause, and there’s a lot to grab your attention on the streets of Manchester.

It also changes from season to season. At certain times of year, like Christmas, there’s an explosion in music students - string quartets, violinists and brass players practicing their classical repertoire. Many street performers move around, alternating between towns and cities like Stockport, Liverpool, Bolton and Blackpool. Others spend a block of the year in Manchester and the rest back at home in Africa.

Manchester's city scape lends itself to street performance, from the fact that much of the city centre is pedestrianised to the backdrops formed by the concrete architecture of Piccadilly Gardens, the sound tunnel of the covered walkway at the end of Market Street and the steps that make an almost-stage outside Marks and Spencer.

A familiar face on Manchester’s streets is Buddy the One Man Band, who plays at various locations up and down Market Street as well as spots like outside Marks and Spencer with his home made foot operated drum kit. He’s a distinctive sight, often wearing a waistcoat and hat adorned with badges.

Salford musician David Budvar has been busking for thirty years including, for the past four or five years, three or four days a week on the streets of Manchester. His trade has also taken him from Japan to Australia and New Zealand, where the money is good.

When the snow’s thawing and the rest of the buskers have started to come back out, Buddy explains: “It just happened. I busked a lot as a kid. I became friends with a one man band and he inspired me.”

He’s a busker of the traditional kind, who plays the type of songs you can stop and sing along to, and also plays gigs inside if asked. He said: “Everyone has different ideas of what they like. It’s very hard to play your own songs unless you’re very talented. I sometimes do if I get bored, but you have to be fairly good. People are so used to listening to songs they know. I always start with Stand by Me. I’ve been playing it a long time.”

At the moment, though, he says people have less money in their pockets because of the recession. Buddy, who works as a support worker by day, is only really coming out at the weekend: “I can’t make enough money to survive. If everyday was sunny then maybe, but it’s down to the weather. You come out and you never know.”

Today, he’s having equipment troubles and everything’s going wrong. Spencer, a balloon seller, comes over and tries to help. He suggests Buddy ask Sally from the potato stall for a piece of foil from one of the potatoes. As another regular on the streets, Spencer’s quite positively inclined towards buskers. He said: “There are some good buskers and some bad, but they definitely liven the street up.”

Another busking veteran is freelance dancer and dance teacher Danny Henry from Salford (here is Danny dancing in the video for the Hacienda dance classic Vodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald) who has been performing on the streets for decades, first with percussion group Inner Sense, then Manchester School of Samba, and now most often with Jali the Kora player in the Piccadilly area. He smiles: “Many people know me and know my face.”

“I learned street samba from a Brazilian girl. It’s a mixture of samba moves and creativity - what you can put in. Samba and carnival was made for the street because it comes from the street. It’s a celebration of freedom. I come up with routines very naturally and quickly. I express myself through the music and incorporate handstands etc. as a show if the music moves me. People like to see what you can do,” Danny explained.

Being on the street offers a unique challenge, Danny added: “You meet all sorts of people, positive and negative. It’s a natural element of my work. It’s organic - people are passing all the time. People smile more, start dancing, groups of kids follow me. Everything’s possible…although you get the odd person who's a bit drunk and starts pulling me or something. It‘s a great feeling when people join in. The more the better. It’s my job to get people dancing.”

Whilst busking with Manchester School of Samba, dance and Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) students would sometimes join in, and members of the crowd of all ages, from toddlers to middle aged shoppers, would often come up and start a dance-off with Danny. “I can come up with a hip-hop routine on the spot. I like that challenge. Sometimes we’d get people who would do something interesting or different, like break dancers, and I would stand back and let them show off.”

He continued: "People want to be out there performing. It’s natural to want to be able to show off what you’ve learned in front of people, and have pride in it. The self-expression of a person is so important. It’s about community spirit and liberating people. With this country, though, sometimes it’s hard to get up and just do it.”

Danny would like to see the council support street performers more by promoting them and creating defined busking spots so buskers could know when and where it’s safe and acceptable to perform. Busking often relies on negotiation and flexible arrangements over times and pitches, though recently there’s been tension with newcomers coming and ‘stealing’ spots. Other people would like to see more spaces opened up to public performance, for example Exchange Square, which was originally intended as a performance space before the Big Wheel took it over.

Jali and Danny were invited to perform on a float in Jeremy Deller’s Procession in July. Part of Manchester International Festival, Procession was a celebration of the diverse groups of people that contribute to the life of the city. Buskers have also performed at events at Band on the Wall, such as Exodus Jam.

Jali moved to Manchester from the Gambia about seven years ago, and has been busking for about five years, admitting: "It's not easy to get a job here." He returns to the Gambia regularly, where he plays concerts. He explained: "I've been playing Kora all my life, and I play at all different types of places and occasions." In Manchester, he's sometimes accompanied by drummers. Today he's with Bob who's also from the Gambia, and is learning to play the djembe by playing along to Jali's music as well as busking with friends at night time. It's still too cold though, and they stop after a couple of hours. (here is a youtube link to Jali performing.)

Danny just started dancing with Jali one day and they formed a 'relaxed partnership.' Danny said: "Jali’s music is all about feeling, handed down from generation to generation. He sings in his language and I don’t speak it, but the music of the Kora speaks for itself. I speak through my body. I can hear and feel the percussion.”

He admitted: “If I make some money, that’s great, but it’s more about the spirit.”

However, not everyone has positive views on busking. Manchester School of Samba, a regular Saturday fixture outside Marks and Spencer, stopped busking nearly two years ago after complaints to the council and City Co*, the public-private consortium that manages the City Centre, about noise from nearby shops.

One vociferous protester was David, from jewelers Arthur Kay and Brothers, a small, neat shop which directly faces the raised steps where MSS used to busk.

“They were too noisy. We couldn’t hear our customers and they couldn’t hear themselves speak. It was even worse for shops like Accessorize who have their doors open with a warm wall of air. They couldn’t hear the telephone. Zara and FCUK didn’t like it either. It would be okay if it was only for an hour or so, but of course it‘s not because they need to make money,” he complained.

He continued: “There’s a safety issue too. If people are watching and step backwards they could get hit by a car. We kept expecting that to happen. Or people can’t hear the warning noises of the bollards.”

He’s not anti-busking per se, though: “It’s the drums. Other buskers are just background noise, for example the official buskers at the Christmas markets.” As I leave, a saxophone rises sweetly through the damp end of day gloom, its riffs on The Girl From Ipanema twisting round the buildings of St Ann’s Square, while a lone saxophonist bobs up and down (“a lot of saxophonists just stand there apologetically - that’s why I try to move around a bit.”). Buddy comes and over and they exchange business cards, promising to ‘stick together’. Buddy offers to lend some equipment and suggests the saxophonist gets something to 'entertain the kids during the day'.

Manchester School of Samba, although one of a few samba bands that used to busk outside Marks and Spencer, was the first and biggest, with around 15 drummers performing each week as well as a group of dancers. The band's leader, Anthony Watt, explained: “As well as a core of buskers who’d turn up, we’d get other players who would wander in and out. Busking is a way of advertising what we do, but it's also useful as a means of rehearsal and helps draw the band together. The band itself got better and tighter, and we got quite a bit more work.”

He counters accusations of excessive noise pollution by arguing that when his group busked, it was a tourist attraction that encouraged people down towards that part of town, with up to a thousand people stopping to watch over the course of a typical Saturday. He also claims the band had the support of shops such as Marks and Spencer: “We helped increase trade. It’s a natural performance space and we drew people down to the shops there."

Street performance animates the whole city. It raises questions about what is the city space and what is Manchester? The more exciting cities like New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin tend to have the more unusual, individual street acts. People have said to me that it’s one of the things that makes Manchester what it is,” Tony elaborated.

“Busking gives people a reminder that there’s more to life than money and shopping. We can be too obsessed with the pursuit of money. Samba’s about human contact and human relations, which is valuable - even if the rest of society doesn’t think so. You’d see fractious kids and arguing parents, they obviously never did anything together, but then when they started listening to the band whatever they were thinking about before would just disappear.”

He continued: “We set an exciting background to people’s Saturday afternoons. Every week was exciting. The things I enjoyed most were the little things. You might see someone at the back of the crowd and then they walk in time to the music, then they stop and listen and walk away smiling. That happened very often.

“Busking is a philosophy of life. A way of looking at the world. Being a street performer brings together odd groups of people. It’s a focus of the community. It allows connections to be made that wouldn’t have been otherwise. Samba bands in particular are social organisations.”

Single Cell, an art and music collective, share concerns about public space, saying their aim is 'to open up the city, to liberate space and use it for creative purposes'. They organised a Guerilla Busking event in the centre of Manchester last year, inviting both regular buskers and people who had never busked before to take part. Jonathan from Single Cell Collective explained: “In Manchester, in common with many other cities in the UK, public space is becoming increasingly managed, policed and privatised. Many 'undesirable' elements such as the homeless, graffiti writers and skaters are being excluded for spurious reasons."

He said: “We chose to do Guerilla Busking as a way of testing the boundaries of public and private space. We wanted to stage public performances in public space to demonstrate there is a role for creativity and performance in the city.”

It seems a shame that the commercial and creative sides of the city can't coexist better or come to some sort of agreement - after all, with shops the same in high streets across the country, often blaring out the same chart music, surely busking offers something different to the city experience.

Perhaps Danny summed it up best when he said: “When the music stops there’s something missing. Music is the heartbeat of Manchester.”

*Like every other article I have tried to get a comment for, neither got back to me

Manchester School of Samba meet at the Dancehouse, Oxford Road, every Wednesday from 7.30pm-10.30pm, with dance and drumming.


Harry Palmer said...

Excellent article! Now I have another reason to hate that big wheel in Exchange square. I saw Jali playing with the dreadlocked thumb-piano (mbira) guy, a white guy on the hand drums, plus a guy doing some crazy dancing (Danny? not sure). Manchester's finest! Bought Jali's CD and it's excellent - several of the tracks are a fusion of his traditional African sound with hip hop beats. It works very well.

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