Playing in the Metro is free, and anyone can play. Certain metro’s have a blue symbol of a harp to signify a busking location, and anyone that desires to play must come early in the morning (5:30 at some spots) and place their name on a daily list. Time slots are worked out on a first come first serve basis, except at Berri UQuam where people convene at 11 pm to have a lottery for the following day. Will says that high traffic connector hubs like Jean Talon, Berri Uqam, and Snowdown are most competitive, and in the past there have been some cases of spot stealing. Gregoire the Stilts Man was a key instigator in organizing to gain legal recognition. Watch my video with him for the full story.
It was a struggle for legal recognition and cultural power. Previous to 1983, playing music in the metro’s was illegal, and fines began at one hundred dollars. Gregoire was one of the few that still played illegally, but he was fined three times, totalling sixteen hundred dollars. In 1983 Gregoire helped establish l’Association des musiciens indépendants du metro to overturn the law against playing any instruments in the metros. After overturning the law in court, there was still a number of legal issues to be worked out with the STM police. The blue signs were set up, noise levels were set, and panhandlers had to be continually turned away for causing disturbances. For a long time there was no clear distinction between busker and panhandler because there was no organized system. Indeed, continual bureaucratic ranglings made it a very unstable organization, and it folded a few months later.
In 2009, le Regroupement des musiciens du métro de Montreal was formed as a non profit organization who’s mandate is to “represent and fight for the rights of Montreal metro buskers”. After talking to some buskers about it, the general consensus was positive. “Having an organization will bring respect to musicians that play in the metro,” said one of the buskers. “[With auditions implemented] there would be a certain standard that would weed out the few people that think by picking up a guitar, it would be another way to squeeze money out of people.” said Ivan the Saxophonist. Gregoire, Francoise and Will were in full support of such a move, while Greg disagreed, believing in the anarchic spirit of busking. The hope was that organizing under one name would provide legitimacy, and hopefully improve public perception. The group held auditions in spring 2010. Of an estimated 300 or more musicians who play in the metro yearly, 165 auditioned and passed. Now more than 120 buskers have photo ID permits after paying $80 in fees. However, membership only ensure’s soft power over time slots. A heated debate ensued around this time over the issue who could play at the metro, and whether it was right to put restrictions. The debate was summarized succinctly by John Kerkhoven, who passed the auditions but will symbolically refuse the badge. “Part of what gives the metro its energy and interest is that you have all types of people who come and play. It’s all part of the dynamism and vitality of it,” Kerkhoven says, adding that the newsystem is creating an environment that’s closed and rigid.[i]
I) GET YOUR ALIAS
There certainly is an unspoken code in the busking world. The most pervasive one is the Alias, often directly connected to your instrument of choice. Will was tutored by Gregoire, but even though they had numerous interactions they never exchanged real names. Will was the Piano Man, and the Stilt guy was always the Stilt Guy. Will went on to say that he knows all the other metro buskers, but refers to them only by their alias. Greg is The Slide Guitar man, and Francoise is the Boat Guy. Despite this apparent social wall, many of them are friends outside of busking. I talked to Will the day after his birthday, and at his birthday party the previous night he said there were a number of buskers in attendance. Gregoire is aware of a lot of the buskers, and feels great solidarity for them, but does not socialize with any other performers. Certainly there is a shared solidarity in anonymity between the performers, and some like Gregoire the Stilts guy are very engaged in the bohemian underground community. He says he is busy working contract jobs when he’s not busking as the STILTS GUY.
II) RESPECT YOUR COMMUNITY It is also customary to tip whenever you encounter another busker, especially during the turn rotation process. There is a shared solidarity in living on the margins of society and cherishing every penny earned. There are also unwritten rules about the sign up system. First of all, you are only allowed to play the same spot once in a day. The first person to reach a location starts a time list for the day. Will tells me that crossing names or flipping time slots has been an issue in the past, and how if someone is caught doing it they are not allowed to play for a week.
Here are two business cards from buskers around town. In fact, every musician i talked to had a card to share with me. This is evidence that busking is taken very seriously by most Montrealers
In October 2008 Julian Cope and the Black Sheep went on a three day busking tour of Britain, taking in 11 overlooked sites of historical significance. The tour was filmed, and is now due to be released as a documentary titled Revolution Blues. The forgotten historical locations visited by the busking clan included the site of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, the Carl Jung statue in Liverpool and the place Eddie Cochrane died.
Music has had latent cultural importance since the dawn of man. Here we see Assyrians playing their hand crafted instruments
Here are two minstrels, dating roughly form the thirteenth century. Dressed in traditional garments (bright, flashy colours and always with a hat). On the right hand side the man is playing a lute; an early version of the guitar. Check them out here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lute). The man on the left hand side is playing two wooden flutes, probably Tabor pipes (http://www.wood-n-bone.co.nz/musical_instruments.html)
Recently there has been re-appraisal of what historical documentation implies. Up until the twentieth century, it was generally believed that the written form was the most accurate form of historical documentation. The supposed superiority came from the assumption that the historian analyzed all pertinent information at hand, and wrote unbiased conclusions that accurately summarized particular events. However, this practice solidified a winner-looser divide in historical documentation that also presented a very linear, simplified understanding of the progress of history. So, we have the celebratory notion of the Roman Empire that rose from the dust; an all-conquering empire that was always in the right.
Roman history is what it is because it was documented by Roman historians, whose job it was to glorify the Roman Empire. There was the winner, who had the right to tell their story, and the looser, which had not earned the right to tell their story. Historiography and dissemination of historical knowledge was often presented in such a codified, black and white manner.
Recently we have seen the rise of alternative forms of historical documentation that challenges linear notions of history. During the latter half of the twentieth century, alternate narratives to the same events began to emerge. Part of the intellectual movement of post modernism, consideration was finally given to marginalized histories.
Marginalization is roughly defined as “the social process of becoming or being relegated to the fringe of society e.g.; “the marginalization of the underclass“, “marginalisation of intellect.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marginalization). There has been a lot of recent scholarship on this topic, spanning all manner of sub-topics.[i]
The issue is about interests, empowerment, and expression; and only recently have underclass communities been given freedom of expression. Part of the recognition of marginal society is acceptance for alternative forms of documentation. Oral history, so often linked to marginalized communities, is only now gaining legitimacy. Visual imagery and film material is also now considered equal to text in terms of historical legitimacy. Essentially, there has been a massive movement to problematize notions of interests, power, legitimacy, and accuracy when it comes to interpreting the past.
What are we missing out on when those in power determine what gets remembered and why? We are missing out on individual expression, we are missing out on diversity, we are missing out on reality. Awareness of the historical subjugation of marginalized groups helps put the progress of history into proper context, allowing for everyone’s voice in society to be heard. This is the ideal we strive towards.
One marginalized group is the community of buskers. Far too often, assumptions of homelessness, vagrancy, and dirtiness are paired to musicians performing in the public. Look here for more in-depth considerations of buskers social status in Medieval Europe.[ii]
Legal rulings reflect assumptions of vagrancy pinned to buskers. In 451 B.C., the Roman Republic enacted the ‘Laws of the Twelve Tables’, a prohibition, under pain of death, against singing or composing defamatory texts or songs. In medieval Europe, religious authorities and political leaders condemned itinerant performers as superstitious pagans. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, for example, “excluded histriones and scurrae, which included all entertainers without noble protection, from the privilege of justice”. In 1530, Henry VIII ordered the licensing of beggars who could not work, as well as pardoners, fortune-tellers, fencers, minstrels, and players; if they did not obey they could be whipped on two consecutive days.[iii]
In a more contemporary context, buskers were incorporated into the argument about “beggars and vagrants” that occurred in Toronto during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Under British and, therefore, Canadian, law, busker’s belonged to this legal category. In the 1 860s, Michael Bass, a prominent English mathematician, led a campaign against street music that led to frequent disagreements concerning the category, so that the law was rewritten to the benefit of both buskers and those in opposition.
The London Underground established its busking scheme in 2003 to manage what they previously considered an “illegal and unregulated activity.” Carling, the London Paper and Capital Radio all took turns sponsoring the busking programme at various times between 2003 and 2008, but the London Underground now runs the show. They claim that altercations involving buskers have dropped 300% at some stations, and that busking-related police calls are down 72%. Roughly 250 of the 300 licensed buskers enrolled in the scheme are active, according to a London Underground official who asked not to be quoted for this story. The male-to-female ratio among buskers is about three to one. (“London Undergound’s Got Talent”, http://www.tfl.gov.uk)
As Gregoire explained in his video, it was illegal to busk in Montreal until 1983, when he instigated the formation of l’Association des musiciens indépendants du metro. Upon becoming legal practice, numbers of buskers jumped from 30 to 300, and unfortunately, homeless people began to feign musical talent and copy the buskers. The designation of legal spots to busk solved this issue for the most part, and only now are people’s perceptions of buskers changing.
I believe buskers are very visceral reflection of a cities cultural diversity. They bring out personal memories for passersby, they interact with the public (in an age when no one smiles to each other on the subway), and through their latent talent they offer an exciting performance. I want to problematize the notion that street musicianship is a worthless cultural custom that augments a cities social issues rather than embellishing its cultural diversity.
Montreal is a good example, because Montrealer’s embrace the rich heritage of buskers much more than other major North American cities. I believe that based on the information compiled here, I have challenged the stereotype of buskers as quasi-homeless panhandler types. What do you think?
[i] Indra, Doreen. Lyla Meta ed. Displaced by Development: Confronting Marginalization and Gender Injustice. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009. (http://jrs.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/4/527.full) Accessed on March 24th;
Krickeberg, Dieter. “On the Social Status of the Spielmann (‘Folk Musician’) in 17th and 18th Century Germany, Particularly in the Northwest.” In Walter Salmen, ed., The Social Status of the Professional Musician from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. (trans. Herbert Kaufman and Barbara Reisner). New York: Pendragon Press, 1983, 95-122.
Subramanian, Ajantha. Shorlines: Space and Rights in South India. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Accessed on March 19th. (http://icsf.net/icsf2006/uploads/publications/samudra/pdf/english/issue_56/art08.pdf);
Vincer, Mary Pamela. A History of Marginalization – Africville: a Canadian Example of Forced Migration. Masters Dissertation presented at Ryerson University. 2008. Accessed on March 23rd from unstable url.;
[ii] Salmen Walter ed., annot. and trans. by Herbert Kaufman and Barbara Reisner The Social Status of the Professional Musician from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.New York : Pendragon Press, 1983; Sabine A. Fernandes. A Study of Busking Culture in Denver. 2009. Accessed from http://www.du.edu/writing/newsletter10/FernandesQrr.pdf. Accessed on March 25th).
[iii] Cohen, David and Greenwood, Ben. The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment. London: David and Charles, 1981. Cited in: Smith, Murray. Traditions, Stereotypes, and Tactics:: A History of Musical Buskers in Toronto. “Journal for Traditional Music”, 1996. Accessed on March 20th, from http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/24/v24art3.html.