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Music of the streets: a look at the work of Edmonton buskers

March 28, 2013 Features Comments Off
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Photo supplied by Milton Photography

Photo supplied by Milton Photography

Stephan Boissonneault
Writer

Note: scroll to the bottom of the page to view a pdf of this article in the print edition

Here in Edmonton we are privileged with a rich musical community. Musicians and bands play shows at local venues, sell CDs, and the odd song makes it onto the radio.

And beneath this we have what I believe is the underground cornerstone of any music community: the buskers. These men and women brave Edmonton weather. Whether it’s the blistering cold winter tundra we have for two thirds of the year or our hot summers that suddenly begin and then come to an abrupt stop — not to mention the harassment many face from passersby.

As we scoured the Edmonton streets, we found a common theme among some of the buskers. Many of them would either decline an interview or not answer us at all. Perhaps it was out of a sense of pride. Regardless of the reason, we eventually found a couple buskers willing to chat and reveal what their busking lives are really about.

The sensible scarlet

Lisa Pence is a third-year political science student at Concordia University. When she isn’t spending her time cramming for exams, she is busking in or near Borden Park, just south of Northlands off of 112th Avenue and Wayne Gretzky Drive. Her busking story began in Toronto when she was 16, when, in her words, her parents wouldn’t stop “badgering” her until she learned to play a musical instrument.

Michael Hennig - photo supplied by Rob Schaeffer

Michael Hennig – photo supplied by Rob Schaeffer

So she learned to play the violin and eventually guitar.  Growing up in an extremely loud city meant practicing outside made the most sense. Her contribution to the noise pollution wouldn’t hurt anyone, so she decided her condo landing would be the ideal place to learn her craft. One day while walking, she spotted a “Willy Nelson-type fellow” playing his guitar on the sidewalk with his case filled with bills and change. She immediately had the idea that she could enjoy the perfect combination of practice and profit.

Pence recalls a tragic story in which she was given a ticket for not having a permit by a very “unruly cop.” The day took a  turn for the worse when a stumbling drunkard literally kicked her guitar in after she wouldn’t play a requested song.

After facing the darker side of busking, Pence bought a new guitar and moved to Edmonton for university. She took a year off busking to focus on her studies and meet people in her new city. Then she jumped back into the trade after surveying all of the successful buskers around town. She planted herself on Whyte Ave.

But after having her earnings stolen multiple times over, she decided to busk near Borden Park. “Whyte Ave. was too chaotic for me,” she says. “I congratulate the brave souls who still make camp there.”

Pence’s busking set list consists of a variety of classic rock covers from Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole,” as well as her originals on violin. She tries to play as many requests from people as possible, but trying to learn every new song can be a real time drain.

She plans her schedule around her school commitments and always refuses to busk in weather colder than -20 C. Pence religiously follows her own advice: “no use freezing your tits off for random people in a cold unforgiving place.” She hopes to release an album in 2014 under the alias of Señora Scarlet, a name inspired by her striking red hair.

The supplementary student

Second-year Grant MacEwan student and English major, Michael Hennig, is also a frequent busker in Edmonton. He got into busking for what he likes to call “financial necessity.” His first busking experience took place in the Corona LRT Station during rush hour one hot summer day.

After that episode he found himself surrounded by a number of apathetic subway goers. As he “power[ed] through” that realm of apathy, he came to his own realization that “buskers don’t have special God-given talents or special personality traits . . . they just have balls.”

When it comes to the Edmonton busking laws, Hennig is fine with them. Edmonton’s busking laws are said to be reasonable by the local buskers we talked to. No licensing is required to busk on city property, but busking at an Edmonton transit centre, is only $15 a month. Buskers who choose to play in LRT stations or on ETS property pay the fee and are given a priority number based on the time the fee is paid. This number gives buskers two guaranteed locations in the month on certain days and times. If a busker has a higher priority number than another they get first claim to a busking spot. This type of busking law differs from the other laws of major Canadian cities such as Toronto and Ottawa, which have the insane prices of $100 to $150 every week or month for a busking license.

Photo supplied by Savannah Kafara

Photo supplied by Savannah Kafara

Hennig only has to purchase a busking license when he performs in the LRT stations. But when he chooses to busk on Whyte Ave. he has to deal with the competition factor between buskers as well .

This crops up because of the limited number of busking locales available on Whyte. Veteran buskers know the golden spots, and some of them try to use their experience as an excuse to get their peers to move. “It’s kind of an all-boys club,” Hennig jokes. “When someone comes up to me and tells me to move it’s almost sort of an implication that either . . . my art isn’t as good as theirs . . . or that my financial livelihood isn’t as important as [theirs].”

Hennig’s plays mostly folk. He makes a point of playing what he wants to play and not always catering to what the people want to hear. “It’s always about amusing yourself and getting engaged with yourself and putting on a good performance.”

He likes to take old punk songs like The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” and give them his own flavour by slowing the songs down. He says “Coffee God and Cigarettes” by Mischief Brew probably earns him the most money because of its humorous nature. “Just a song like that, which acknowledges . . . yes I’m going to spend every last penny on cigarettes. Even if you don’t mean it, [it’s] having that sense of humour about it.” He often performs a couple of songs from his band, Good Friday Brawl, as well.

Hennig chooses to busk in the afternoon on weekdays and weekends. He won’t go out on the busy weekend nights due to the number of “horror stories” he’s heard about fellow buskers being harassed or even having their change stolen.

He says he faces the common misconception of buskers being jobless and therefore beggars on a regular basis, but that’s not the truth. “I’m still a dirty punk that’s drinking beer at 11 in the morning, but I run my own business through my band, and I do have a day job.” As a busker, Hennig’s goal is just giving someone a smile or giving them a bit extra in their day.

His favourite moments are when parents give change to their child to drop it in his guitar case. “Something like that is so cool. Just to see that . . . talk to this kid and maybe get them interested in music.” But Hennig can’t see himself busking forever. It has always been a secondary activity to playing shows with his band.

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

The hardened veteran

Quinn Wade, a well-known busker around Edmonton, is another amiable performer that was willing to talk. You’ve probably seen him around town in his wheelchair, usually playing a blues- or jazz-infused song with his shiny soprano saxophone. His story began in 1995 in Halifax when someone stuck $10 in his case while he was practicing what he calls a “horrific rendition” of “Danny Boy” on the waterfront

Wade thrives on the interactions that he soaks up from the people he entertains. But he finds that his earnings are almost always dependent on the current financial market. “If you ever want to know what the economy is like, ask a busker,” he says with a laugh. Another challenge that buskers face according to Wade is being “lumped in with the same group as the pan handlers.”

Wade has played on almost every street corner in every major city in Canada, but he eventually settled in Edmonton and can often be seen at one of Edmonton’s major summer festivals like The Fringe.

He lost his stage fright of live performance early in his career when he puked (probably due to nerves) during his first open mic night on the stage of Halifax’s Velvet Olive, a cocktail bar that shuttered its doors in 2004. “What’s a reed squeak, what’s a mistake when you have done the absolute worst possible thing that could happen to anybody on stage.” he says.

Wade’s choice of repertoire always depends on the type of crowd he is playing for. “There’s a real science to busking . . . you have to gear your stuff to what the [people] want.” He tries to keep his material fresh, but will gladly take requests or even song suggestions from his many clientele.

Wade tries to work with a first-come, first-served mentality to grab the best busking places. He’s learned from years of experience that buskers will jump at the opportunity to swoop up and snag the best spot possible if one is left unattended. And, like many buskers, he’s also been subject to the abuse that sometimes comes with the trade.

The Jasper Avenue Library area is no longer a “viable area” in Wade’s opinion because it’s associated with the pan handlers and drug dealers. He’s also, on occasion, been told by property owners not to play near their establishments.

“They’re trying to make a business. I’m a business. Let’s not try to compete with each other and blow each other off . . . what’s the point with that?” Wade released an album in 2012 titled Now and Then that features originals and covers, but that doesn’t mean that he has plans to stop the busking life anytime soon.

The busking lifestyle can take on different connotations when explained by real buskers, whether they’re a student looking for an honest relaxing buck, an undergrad with a day job trying to ease the burden of tuition, or a veteran with a passion for human emotion. Perhaps now we can begin to understand the benefits and hardships of the busking life.

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