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robson-hatsukami-morgan-seor_ea8koe-unsplash-1 - Frenchmen Street, Nouvelle Orléans, United States

Modern urban troubadours : Beggars or buskers ?

A pano­ra­mic pers­pec­tive of urban music trou­ba­dours, the role they play in public spaces and some les­sons we can learn from them.

In 2007, an expe­riment took place inside a metro sta­tion in Washing­ton D.C where, Joshua Bell, a world-renow­ned vio­li­nist, per­for­med inco­gni­to for almost 1 hr. Over a thou­sand per­sons pas­sed by but only a few stop­ped to lis­ten and one reco­gni­zed him. He made 32 dollars. 


What does this per­for­mance tell us about the way that we as audiences relate to music in public spaces and our abi­li­ty to per­ceive beau­ty in the mid­st of urban chaos ? If Joshua Bell can be igno­red, does an unk­nown street per­for­mer stand a chance to be real­ly noti­ced ? The ano­ny­mi­ty of the modern metro­po­lis cou­pled with the ubi­qui­ty of muzak and the increa­sing noise pol­lu­tion in our cities is such that some people might even won­der whe­ther street musi­cians contri­bute more to the caco­pho­ny of the city than any­thing else. 

Howe­ver, if we lis­ten care­ful­ly, per­haps street musi­cians can teach us a few les­sons. As modern urban trou­ba­dours, they bring sur­pri­sing musi­cal encoun­ters into the dai­ly life of com­mu­ters and ordi­na­ry citi­zens to create musi­cal moments in unex­pec­ted places.


Through the tem­po­ra­ry appro­pria­tion of public spaces, they bring life to our streets and contri­bute to shape the iden­ti­ties of neigh­bou­rhoods. Many urban public spaces are as renow­ned for their spa­tial qua­li­ties as for their cultu­ral and musi­cal atmos­phere. Graf­ton Street in Dublin, Washing­ton Square in New York, Royal Street in New Orleans and many more, are in fact open air cultu­ral forums. Jazz, Chi­ca­go Blues, Hip Hop, Klez­mer and Gyp­sy music, to name but a few examples, are played now all over the globe but they were born in the streets and are the living pro­duct of inter­cul­tu­ral exchange among dif­ferent communities. 

Pla­za Gari­bal­di, the Mec­ca of Maria­chi music in Mexi­co City.


Our streets consti­tute unique cross­roads of musi­cal paths. For some musi­cians, such as Valen­ti­na Morales, a clas­si­cal cel­lo player who per­forms in down­town Mexi­co City, street per­for­mances represent not only the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring her craft to lar­ger audiences who wouldn’t other­wise have the means to expe­rience a clas­si­cal music concert. Her per­for­mances attempt to raise a conver­sa­tion about clas­si­cal music’s acces­si­bi­li­ty towards dif­ferent class back­grounds and the sta­tus of musi­cians, and also the chance to advo­cate for regu­la­tion and recog­ni­tion of street musicians.

For others, music bus­king repre­sents a first step in their music career. Rodri­go y Gabrie­la, a cele­bra­ted Mexi­can gui­tar duo, left their home coun­try after years of limi­ted suc­cess and star­ted from scratch, per­for­ming in the streets of Dublin in the late 90s before rea­ching glo­bal star­dom. Their sto­ry is incre­dible, but not the only one. In fact, the list of famous musi­cians who star­ted as street per­for­mers is long and includes the likes of Edith Piaf, Janis Joplin, Rod Ste­wart, Tra­cy Chap­man and more recent­ly Ed Shee­ran, who used to per­form in the Lon­don tube. Some­times even the oppo­site and most unex­pec­ted hap­pens : music cele­bri­ties go to the street and deli­ver sur­prise per­for­mances to unsus­pec­ting audiences.


Sur­pri­sing audiences is also a key aspect of Music flash mobs. They consti­tute a recent and dif­ferent type of street per­for­mance that has become increa­sin­gly popu­lar since the ear­ly 2000’s, although they are often orga­ni­zed around poli­ti­cal, acti­vist or mar­ke­ting pur­poses and wide­ly pro­mo­ted on social media to maxi­mize impact and notoriety. 


Inter­na­tio­nal Busking

Since 2011, Inter­na­tio­nal Bus­king day as a hash­tag cam­pai­gn is orga­ni­zed to help raise the pro­file of street per­for­mance and cele­brate talent. It is also increa­sin­gly visible via inter­net bus­ker com­mu­ni­ty plat­forms and as an inter­na­tio­nal phe­no­me­non with seve­ral fes­ti­vals such as Linz and Fer­ra­ra in Europe, that have exis­ted for over 30 years. These fes­ti­vals strive to main­tain the spi­rit of bus­king, under­li­ning the inter­ac­tion of musi­cian and audience and offe­ring oppor­tu­ni­ties for new talents.


We should not for­get, that what tru­ly cha­rac­te­rizes street per­for­mance, is the unique set­ting, the spon­ta­nei­ty and inter­ac­tion bet­ween per­for­mer and audience. Unlike in conven­tio­nal concerts, the audience is free to stay or leave at any moment, to show their appre­cia­tion as they like or to pass along. When a musi­cian cap­tures the atten­tion of pas­sers-by and convinces them to inter­rupt their jour­ney and remain even for a few minutes, he/she is crea­ting a spe­cial moment out of nothing. Lit­tle by lit­tle, almost orga­ni­cal­ly a crowd gathers and some­times a real sense of toge­ther­ness is achie­ved among com­plete stran­gers. That’s both, the beau­ty and the sim­pli­ci­ty of it. And when people pay for it, they make it pos­sible for the music to conti­nue for future audiences. Bus­kers aren’t beggars.


There is no sub­sti­tute for tra­ve­ling the world and explo­ring the music on its streets but for­tu­na­te­ly street musi­cians are brin­ging world music clo­ser to us. There are seve­ral inter­es­ting ini­tia­tives that allow us to tra­vel vir­tual­ly such as world​street​mu​sic​.com and Playing for change, a move­ment devo­ted to ins­pire and connect the world through music which set out to record street musi­cians in dif­ferent coun­tries and resul­ted in the award-win­ning docu­men­ta­ry A Cine­ma­tic Dis­co­ve­ry of Street Music.


Per­haps the recent per­for­mances from bal­co­nies and roofs in seve­ral cities across the world during the COVID-19 cri­sis are a remin­der of the need to express our­selves through music and of the impor­tance of live music connec­ting people des­pite iso­la­tion and confi­ne­ment. By brin­ging culture and life to the streets, they are de fac­to grass root actors of world music and an inte­gral part of the music eco-sys­tem of cities. Cultu­ral pol­li­na­tors, they often tra­vel the world and not only bring their music with them but also embo­dy a phi­lo­so­phy of exchange, free­dom and diversity. 

Street music is part of an ongoing sto­ry and quite like­ly it’s in the streets of today where the urban music of tomor­row is being created.


By the same author : « Nar­co­cor­ri­dos : A musi­cal tra­di­tion per­ver­ted by violence ? »

« Por­traying the city through music »



Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija

Alejandro is a Franco-Mexican with over 20 years of international experience and has lived in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Munich, St. Petersburg, Interlochen, Aspen and Mexico. He currently lectures at several French Universities and organizes international seminars on urban issues in Europe for universities and local government delegations from Mexico and Chile. Previously, he worked in international relations (OECD, UNESCO, Mexican Embassy in Berlin) and since 2014, he has been teaching at Sciences Po Paris (Poitiers, Nancy and Reims campuses) and at ESPOL Lille. His classes include Music and Power, Sounds of the World: Music as a mirror of the intimate and the collectiveBeing an actor of the city and Languages of the world/world of languages.  Alejandro is also a musician (classical guitar) with a master in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris and holds a multilingual (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Russian) official license as a cultural guide (www.aatt.mx).

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