Saturday, August 13, 2011

playing for change

Every year around this time there's a Busker's Festival held at the Halifax harbor boardwalk. These days I prefer avoiding crowds whenever possible - at least crowds of holiday makers whose main interest seems to be lining up at food vending stands. Call me cranky and I won't argue.

Anyway, yesterday we had some business to attend to a few blocks over at a place that's on the direct route to the busy summer waterfront. As we walked across the bridge to the ferry terminal we heard a few young guys attempting to play a Crosby, Stills and Nash song. Strangely, we'd passed the disabled man whose usual summer spot that is driving his wheelchair along Barrington St. a few minutes previously. He busks in the city year round playing Acadian music on a battered old accordion but it appeared he hadn't been invited to the event.

A few minutes later as we made our way through the people thronging the first batch of food stalls we heard something amazing. It was Andean music and the musicians were very, very good. They were set up under a small awning just to one side of the main walk where there was little space for an audience to stand, and certainly no place to sit. We stood in the bright sun for close to half an hour while people walked directly past them, sometimes even kicking the guitar case placed for donations. The four musicians didn't seem to mind as they continued to play their magnificent haunting music. Besides how wonderful it sounded what was really amazing was to see them switch the traditional instruments during the course of playing individual pieces. It's very rare to see such virtuosos in performance and we felt very blessed to be there in person. Eventually they stopped for a short break and we walked on.

As we continued on our way we saw several other acts playing at much better stages. A couple of hip-hop artists were entertaining an audience sitting on bleachers and benches near their space. Further along a large number of people were enjoying a karaoke contest at another well set up performance area. The last act we saw before we left the harbor was a young guy at a prime site who was balancing a power lawn mower on his chin while a couple of audience members threw heads of lettuce at the rotating blades. Now I don't have anything against hip-hop, karaoke, or bizarre balancing acts but I thought it was rude to make the musicians from Ecuador play in the midst of what was essentially a sidewalk.

So in honor of their magical concert I have drawn a picture. I hope it's one that lets you almost hear the music they played.


  1. I am also frequently jarred by what we find valuable (as a society) and what we find useless. It makes no sense to me.

    I can hear the Andean flute from this piece. I think it's the rapt expression on the musician's face which carries the music through the lines and into my heart.

  2. oh yes!!! the pan flute is echoing in my cranium. upstaged by a lawnmower chopping lettuce. i could cry. dignity and grace and pure sound trumped by stinking exhaust fumes, raucous noise and decadence. especially if the lettuce was anything but iceberg. the drawing is a fine tribute. ? will we see him playing for friends, flora and fauna some day?

  3. I totally agree with Steve and gfid! I'm so glad you have honoured the Andean musicians with your beautiful drawing. The lines are like the music of his flute, Susan.

  4. and i do, the flowing lines in your work speak to what i hear in my heart was heard by you.. to capture in your portrait what i believe you felt in your are amazing.
    this honorable work will surely transcend a ridiculous surrounding such sublime music that touches the heart... within and without the mastery....
    i am happy you were able to see, hear and above all, feel this wonderful music...xox

  5. Oh, this is special! I love the painting and I love your full description of your musical discovery and the bizarre entertainment that followed.

    Your post brings back one of my most precious memories. When I visited New York City the first time I stayed for a week with a childhood friend who lived there (it turned romantic that trip but a long-distance relationship proved too difficult). One day we were walking through Central Park and heard the strains of the most haunting and gorgeous music, so walked toward it and found an ensemble of perhaps eight men playing Andean music. I had never heard that music before and was spellbound, would not leave when my friend was ready to go, and stayed until they took a break in order to purchase a cassette tape. This is in my mind now and I will search for that old tape to see if the group has possibly recorded any cds. They were so beautiful, their music sublime. Thank you, Susan, for this post and painting to recall a wondrous day in my own life.

  6. Oh right, like music is more important to the soul of humanity than lettuce-mangling lawnmower balancing.

    Now I have to scour the tubes for this tuneage.

  7. steve - As usual for you that's a very astute observation. It's a sad situation overall and one I can't understand either.. or rather I have some ideas but none any of us can implement on a large enough scale.

    I'm glad you like the drawing. The lines just came to me.

    gfid - The music was really beautiful and some people were trying to stop to listen but it was a bad spot for musicians who'd come so far. Maybe one day Crow will take us to visit his condor friends and we can sit to listen as we watch the great birds fly.

    marja-leena - I'm so glad I have friends who share my feelings. Thank you.

    linda - Listening to them play was what it must be like to hear the empty sky. I felt ashamed that they weren't the honored guests they deserved to be at the festival. I'm happy you you like the drawing - a close-up of one said it all.

    lydia - Their performance was so wonderful it really did put the rest to shame.

    I'm delighted the post reminded you of that first magical experience in Central Park. I can just imagine your surprise and delight on first hearing the sounds of the pans flutes. My first time was hearing them on a radio program right after my son was born. That was a high point too.

    randal - Exactly my point. Vegetable thrashing has to be more important.

    I tried to find a comparable video without result. Cellphone youtubes were not acceptable.

  8. I got my first taste for the sound of Andean pipe music when I tried to impress a girl 30 years ago by taking her to the ballet.

    it was the Balet Rambert and one piece was called Ghost Dances, the dances were done to Andean pan pipe music.

    I didn't get anywhere with the girl but I still love to hear the pan pipe bands that busk in London!

  9. First. I love the drawing. I was immediately like "Hey, what's this?"

    Second. I'm not calling you cranky. I avoid crowds, too.

    Third. You inspired me to find out what Andean music sounds like because I thought I knew, but I wasn't sure.

    Found this.

  10. maybe if it was a hand pushed reel - type mower, shredding advertising flyers for recycling?

  11. Hi Susan,
    Busking can pay reasonably well when it involves talent combined with the right equipment that does not distort the sound – so I’m not surprised you uncovered those musicians who were very good. Great picture.
    I enjoyed reading your story with the apt illustrations and the post photos before. It’s hard to remember much about that early childhood time but our eldest daughter was always running away to the next door neighbors screaming out ' I’m here’ ; at the top of her voice, she took great interest in anyone new to whom she quickly attached.
    I went for swim in a huge salt water swimming pool, when last in England but it was in Penzance in Cornwall and later in Ireland as it was unusually hot.

    Like you I had no brothers or sisters, and I did not see TV until 1960, but growing up in the country backing on to a river there was an abundance of things to catch your curiosity.

    Best wishes

  12. I DO hear that music. I know the song of the flute. I'm like you. I don't like the crowded "events" and fairs. Down the road from where I live we have the Ellsworth Cheese Curd festival. Ellsworth has a great creamery and they make all kinds of wonderful Wisconsin cheeses. Their specialty is white cheddar cheese curds. The kids love them plain, but many retaurants have them battered and deep fried.
    My point is that they have a complete weekend long traffic snarling money grab poised around the lowly curd. Almost every small town community has one, and the larger cities have larger events that cost more and snarl traffic even more. I guess you either like them or you don't. I don't.
    Been a while since I've stopped by. Been ever so busy here. Hope all is good with you, Crow, Numb and Mr. Phantsy. I still covet your Tracker.


  13. jams - Your first experience of Andean music sounds to have been in a pretty remarkable setting. Romance comes and goes when we're young but the music lasts our lifetimes.

    lisa - I'm glad you like the drawing. One very good thing about blogging for me has been the necessity of expanding my skills enough to encompass a wider variety of experiences. Sometimes I'm more successful than other times.

    That was a neat video and I appreciate you finding it. The closest one I found to the actual sound and feeling of the group we heard was a stage show with seven musicians.

    gfid - That idea sounds like a far better ecological statement to be making. He would have needed to be cranking a wheel to make the blades turn too.

    lindsay - There are some local buskers we always give money too as well as some of those who pass through. You're right that they have to be good at what they do rather than still learning their instruments.

    Yes, it's far easier for us to recall our children's habits than it is our own memories of childhood in other than overall impressions. I think that having a rich experience of the natural world helps develop secure adult personalities.

    spadoman - I'm glad you hear the music. I knew you would.

    I don't like crowds at all but it's a very different experience being part of a big city crowd that's a collection of people going about their business vs. a large group whose common interest is fast food - cheese curds, fish n chips, or whatever.

    I haven't been doing much visiting this summer either but that's to be expected when the weather's fine and there are places to go. We're fine and I hope you are too. The Tracker still gets us where we need to go :-)

  14. As you know, we attended the Buskers Festival in Halifax two years in a row in 2008 and 2009, I believe it was. To be honest, I am sort of amused by acts like the lawnmower balance act you describe. There were actually some very funny and talented buskers the first year. The second, not so much.

    I see your point, though. I think the committees see what draws the crowds and attempt to please them with the weirdest acts they can find. That quiet and beauty should have such a small stage is not surprising. Then again, maybe that little oasis would've lacked its magic on a big stage.

    I am going back to your drawing to take it all in again. :-)

  15. gina - Since we only walk along the harbor occasionally now that it's high season I can't really write anything about the Busker's Festival as a whole. I'm sure there were some very interesting acts over the course of days and nights and all I could hope was that the Ecuadorean band got a better venue later on. Sometimes I just feel melancholic when people seem to prefer being entertained at what I see as being the marginally talented.

    I'm glad you liked the drawing

  16. i recently did a gig with a country band who needed a fiddler. the lead guitar player was last year's winner of the local 'idol' competition. i knew him from before as a quiet, unobtrusive young man with a rare gift and a true passion for his instrument. i was delighted at the time that someone truly dedicated to the MUSIC, and not all wrapped up in how he packaged himself, actually won the competition. some of the entrants were more like strippers than musicians. after a year of being the local 'idol' he stood in front of the crowd at this gig, shouting and behaving like some kind of hype-meister. and they ate it up, screaming his name and egging him on. too weird. the sad truth is that many people are attracted to the hype, not to the music at all, and that the 'biz' has a history of destroying the people who make the music.

  17. I love stopping and listening to street musicians, so much better than the crap on the radio these days.

    I like that you took your talent to honor the Andean musicians. Very cool. :-)

  18. gfid - There was a time when it would have been enough for that young man to continue to perfect his art. It's sad to see someone get their head turned around for the sake of temporary fame. One way or another we all get dropped back to earth and I'll hope he eventually returns to what is real about music.

    mary ellen - There are some really good street musicians and considering the state of the music industry some of the best are more likely to be playing where they can. I'm glad you stop to listen.