The Latin root ‘busk’ can be traced back to ‘buskin, which was a decorated sandal worn by Roman street performers. Historic records from that time also indicate the practice of throwing coins to street performers; the first tips. From here, the travels and evolution of the word busker are as varied and puzzling as the profession itself.
In obsolete French, ‘busque’r, was used to describe another of the world’s oldest professions, a service exchanged for alms; prostitution. In Italian, buskers were known as ‘buscarsi’, stemming from the root “to procure or gain.” In Spain, the root means “to seek”—as in seeking fame and fortune. The most famous early buskers are the gypsies, from Romania. The Romani people are well known as fortune tellers, dancers, musicians and wandering entertainers, and it is they who are credited with bringing busking—the profession and the term—to England.
My favorite association of the word appears in 1851, in the writings of Augustus Septimus Mayhew (an English journalist and author), who used it in The Greatest Plague of Life while describing a lifestyle of shiftless, vagabond buskers—a lifestyle reserved for those lowly looters and libertines, the pirates.
Busking history is rich; filled with controversy, character and intrigue. From medicine shows in the early eighteen hundreds—complete with snake charming, juggling and fire breathing—to one-man bands in the early nineteen hundreds, busking has been alive and well in the United States.
Buskers themselves, fall into a myriad of categories. There are those who create “circle shows,” usually drawing people into large crowds around them. These shows have a definite beginning and end; a skit, dance routine, comedy or ventriloquism. Then there’s café busking, where performances are done in exchange for tips—those tips often collected via a “passing of the hat” (Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, started in this way and the 1973 hit, Piano Man, by Billy Joel, was inspired by his six months as a café busker in Los Angeles).
Still another type of busker is one who embodies a magic that is exclusively their own, yet extraordinarily communal. We walk by them, playing their guitars, singing their songs, performing their music. We may smile at them. We may not. We may hurriedly drop a buck in their open guitar case. We may not. We may stop and watch. We may not.
In the world of this busker, none of these things matter. They are there because they belong there. The streets have called them; the world underfoot has beckoned them. Like The Velveteen Rabbit, they become more real than the trains whizzing by, more concrete than the skyscrapers overhead. And they give the city a life and a breath, an undercurrent of alchemy that would not exist if they were not there. They invite us to sing out of key, to dance out of step, not necessarily trying to discern the meaning of life, but rather, to experience being truly alive.
These are their songs. These are their stories. These are the common threads that connect us all. And as we journey into the heart of this breed of busker, we discover, as Maya Angelou says, “that we are more alike than unalike”.
It was Christmas 2009. I found myself drinking rum, listening to rock & roll and reflecting. Reflecting is what we do at that time of year; the rum and rock & roll simply make that reflection easier to swallow.
I was living in Los Angeles. I had no boyfriend. I had no lover. I didn’t own a home or a dog; I didn’t even have an air fern. What the hell was I doing in Los Angeles?
Two weeks later, I was smack dab in the middle of New York City. I found myself in the midst of the mad, mad ones; those daring souls who had taken their art to the streets and made the city their stage. They were without limits; boundless; free from the shackles of conformity. I was mystified and enchanted, exactly like Mr. Kerouac had predicted.
I bought an unlimited Metro Pass and began exploring the city’s nuances, her character, in the heart of winter. At the 59th/Columbus Circle stop in the Upper West Side, I came across Luke Ryan; a busker with soul, entertaining an invisible crowd, in the three-degree subway.
He sang Springsteen tunes and swayed to the sound of his own voice. He bantered with the non-existent onlookers:
“Oh, there’s the Venti Starbucks cup. It’s all downhill from here. I’m gonna call it a day. Thanks so much for stopping by.”
I looked around and wondered if he was aware that no one was there.
And then I saw his sign, handwritten, leaning against his worn guitar case. “I’m not here and neither are you,” it said.
A nattily dressed man in an Armani suit scurried by, intently focused on the train track ahead.
Luke, whose beard is going gray in two perfectly vertical lines straight down his chin, is an elf-like character with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Like a sparkplug, he is stout, square and full of charge. He looked at the man in the Armani and shouted out, “Mad Dog!”
Armani Man halted.
“You look great. You’re all cleaned up. You’re out of the joint. Good for you.”
Armani Man ducked into the first open train door, without noticing that it was a Queens bound N. “We used to be cell mates,” Luke said to me. “I was the husband.”
That was worth a buck and I gladly dropped a dollar into Luke’s case.
Luke has played the subways for over 30 years, for such spectators as Abbie Hoffman and Tom Waits. He played there back when the city danced to war and protest songs. He played there when that same city reeled from the shock of 9/11, then grieved and healed. He’s been chased, ticketed and embraced by the NYPD as busking evolved from a romantic notion to a legitimate occupation to an illegal activity (which is where it stands today). From freezing to sweltering temperatures, harassment from the homeless to the NYPD, legal battles, arrests, confinement, First Amendment Rights controversies, incarceration, tickets and fines, Luke continues to play.
In future editions of this column, we’ll meet “The Saw Lady,” one Natalia Paruz, who has played Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. She still calls the New York Subway her musical home. The idealistic Theo Eastwind—baker turned busker—with his blond hair and sharp blue eyes, able to recite the First Amendment and all of its nuances in four languages. We’ll meet the indomitable Alice Ridley Tan, an 18-year veteran of the New York underground and mother to Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of the film Precious.
We’ll meet these people and many more, hear their stories, listen to their songs and explore the controversy that swirls around them in the New York underground. And no matter what form of transportation you use—a John Deere tractor, an Italian Vespa, a magic carpet or the city trains—may you be transported to a different place than you were when you started.
Album Review: M.I.A. – Maya
Abrasive, confrontational and idiosyncratic, M.I.A.’s third studio album can’t decide whether it’s a flame-throwing manifesto about “information politics” or an aggressive declaration of self.
Whatever its eventual goals, Maya is easily the artist’s most prickly offering to date—which, given M.I.A.’s track record, is saying something. And yet, it is also her most revealing.
The woman born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (this album is named for her, just as her two previous records, Arularand Kala, were named for her father and mother, respectively) seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis throughout. Since her last record, 2007’s Kala—which produced the gigantic smash single “Paper Planes”—M.I.A. has settled down somewhat, moving in with her boyfriend (music business heir Ben Bronfman) and having a child in Los Angeles.
But is she giving in to the bourgeois lifestyle?
Even if she hadn’t publicly battled a New York Times journalist about the veracity of an interview where she supposedly ordered the high-brow snack of truffle French fries, it’s clear M.I.A.’s success as a producer and performer now stands at odds with her desire to be seen as a street-level revolutionary with little to lose.
The punishing, front part of the album—power tools provide the beat for “Steppin Up”—stands in sharp contrast to the almost soothing, gentle back portion (“Tell Me Why” is probably the closest M.I.A. will ever come to recording a ballad). It’s a striking dichotomy, this tough and soft, but M.I.A. embraces the challenge of reconciling the two.
Working with a roster of forward-thinking producers (Blaqstarr, Diplo, Rusko, Switch and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller), M.I.A. relies on startling samples, including snippets of Suicide and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. The dense sonic landscapes invite repeated listens, moving past M.I.A.’s occasionally detached, occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal performances and unpacking the stellar work of her production team.
Maya doesn’t suggest M.I.A. has lost the taste for experimentation or that her ambition has lessened; “Gravity’s my enemy,” she warbles on the album closer “Space.” If anything, this record feels like someone with creativity to burn wrestling with the need for external expression.
Although M.I.A. could once affect the pose of a musical guerrilla, the passage of time and events that mark most every life (the arrival of domestic tranquility, material success, etc.) have forced a new perspective upon her.
Whether or not she’s comfortable with that change is a question Maya can’t—or won’t—answer.
2011′s Best Underground Music (So Far), Part II
Last month, we told you about some of the best new releases from from the ambient/electronic underground. Here are a few more artists whose work has caught our attention as of late.
Waskerley Way makes beat-heavy electronic music in the UK. Also, he loves cats. (No, seriously, dude’s got a thing for cats; last year he dedicated an entire EP to them.) Waterfall doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but Michael Bridgewater nonetheless puts his own spin on the otherwise tired “chillwave” trope. In fact, it sounds like the sort of chillwave your future grandkids might discover on a dusty old hard drive in your attic. Meowgaze? Hear and download Waterfall on his Bandcamp.
Ra Cailum is Anthony Engelhardt from St. Louis, Missouri. Not all of the songs on latest EP, Passage, are new, but they’ve been lovingly collected and offered to curious listeners free of charge in the wake of the December 2010 release of his Walkabout LP, which he says marked the “end to the CHILLWAVE ERA sound of Ra Cailum.” He says that sound is “becoming a crutch,” but it’s a catchy crutch that resonates even more now that the weather’s finally warm.
Sean McCann is a cyborg. He has to be. Dude puts out like a bazillion full-lengths each year, and they’re all amazing. “Drone” doesn’t really do his music justice; McCann uses all sorts of instruments and sound effects–including banjos and warped violas–to evoke different emotional responses in the listener. His latest, entitled The Capital, explores the symbiotic relationship between chaos and beauty. Or, you know, not; sometimes it’s best to not sully music this good with academic conjecturing.
A tip of the hat to the ever-awesome ambient music blog Weedtemple for introducing the world to Rug. I know absolutely nothing about this project other than that it’s made by a guy named Zach Stenger. But such anonymity is fitting; Deep Sky Clusters sounds less like the work of a person and more like the spontaneous combustion of years’ worth of VHS memories and borrowed melodies. It’s all very strange, but if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised as to how rewarding these songs can be.
Maria Minerva is 23-years-old and lives in Estonia, where she seems to spend most of her time holed up in her bedroom making ghostly electronica of the lo-lo-fi variety. Her latest cassette is called Tallinn at Dawn, and it’s infectious; disco and new wave tinged synth pop backs her ethereal vocals that consistently sound like you’re hearing them from another room. Sometimes, one can’t help but regret an artist’s studio limitations for obscuring a potentially revelatory sound; in Ms. Minerva’s case, however, the low fidelity only adds to the atmosphere. Her music sounds like it’s actually from 1983, and you’ve only recently discovered it after finding her cassettes in a shoebox buried behind your local public library.
Food Pyramid make Kosmiche Musik with a psychedelic twist. They’ve just released the third and final cassette in their krautrock-inspired trilogy. The cassettes are entitled I, II, and now III. Don’t worry, their song titles are a lot more creative; who wouldn’t want to hear songs with titles like “Lesbian Seagull” and “Speedboat Exit Miami Sunset” and “Last Shuttle To The Red Planet?” I mean, this type of music either is your thing or isn’t, but if you wish that Klaus Schulze were actually a trio from Minnesota, then you’ll like what Food Pyramid have to offer.
Why I Love Rebecca Black’s “Friday”
I first learned of 13-year-old Rebecca Black via a Facebook post that appeared on my news feed about two weeks ago, and my initial reaction to the now ubiquitous “Friday” was a mixture of disbelief and amusement—I couldn’t help but chuckle at the atrocious song as I thought about how something so bad could accrue so many views in such a short period of time. Still, I thought of it as something of a novelty—just an internet meme that, like so any others, would sputter and stall once its fuel was burned up.
As it turns out, “Friday” had a lot more gas in the tank than anyone expected.
The culmination of Rebecca Black’s phenomenal rise came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last Friday, when the show’s host enlisted the services of comedian and fake news host Stephen Colbert (arguably one of the biggest stars in the world right now) for a bombastic live rendition of “Friday,” backed by none other than Grammy winning hip hop outfit The Roots. Halfway through the song, Colbert and Fallon (who contributed a verse of heavily auto-tuned guest vocals) were joined on stage by American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and the New York Knicks dance team. The performance climaxed in a huge crescendo of movement and color and may well be remembered as one of the most entertaining and culturally defining musical moments of the year.
That fact is sure to make blood boil among the legions of indie diehards still reveling in little-known rock band Arcade Fire’s monumental Grammy win for “Best Album,” but the truth is that Rebecca Black and her unbelievably bad song penetrated pop culture to a much greater extent than Arcade Fire’s unbelievably good album.
Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs has sold less than 1 million copies, even in spite of the band’s Grammy coup. In contrast, Black’s music video for “Friday” has been played on YouTube over 82 million times. Anecdotally, ask your friends or your co-workers what they know about Arcade Fire, and they’ll most likely stare back at you with blank faces. But ask them what they know about Rebecca Black, and you’re likely to see a considerably more animated response.
Perhaps that fact says something profoundly negative about our culture. Perhaps it’s a shame that we have collectively embraced something that is free, fast and intellectually easy as opposed to something that is textured, beautiful and more difficult to appreciate. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. Perhaps the strength of music cannot be defined just by how textured, beautiful and intellectually rewarding it is. Perhaps, sometimes, music reaches the pinnacle of its potential when it becomes something that we share, not something that we experience and appreciate in relative isolation.
Conventional wisdom says that “Friday” is just an inside joke that we’re all in on. But Fallon and company performed it joyously, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for that performance was anything but a show for the cameras. Maybe people love to hate “Friday,” but they still love it—as evidenced by the fact that they continue to share it, propagate it and discuss it more than they have done with any song or artist in quite some time.
Over the past 15 years, our consumption of music has become tremendously idiosyncratic. Thanks to this infinite distribution stream called the internet, we can download or purchase any song or album made by any person anywhere in the world. And so our music collections reflect not simply our tastes, but our tastes and preferences with incredible specificity.
But while those collections satisfy our personal desires, they typically contain little collective energy. We listen to what we listen to because we like it, but there’s almost no synergy between what we like and what our neighbor likes. Even within genres and musical movements, there seems to be a limitless string of sub-genres and sub-movements, all of which serve to divide music fans into an increasing number of increasingly small groups. And so our music connects us tightly to a few people, but hardly at all to society at large.
“Friday,” in contrast, is a song that isn’t constrained by niche, genre, generational or racial considerations. It’s a song that we’re all experiencing together. And whether we engage with it in appreciation or ridicule, it’s encouraging us to talk to each about that shared experience.
That’s something that just doesn’t happen because of music very often these days.
Black made music that mattered socially, not just critically or commercially. And in doing so, she brought together a drastically disparate musical population–one that is more virtually connected, but more socially disconnected, than at any time in its history.
And if you ask me, that’s the mark of a very good song—regardless of how inane the lyrics may be.
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