Singing for your supper

 

Go Busking:‘Have guitar, will travel’ has been JASPER WINN'Smotto since he was a teenager and it has helped him pay for his travels around the world

THROUGH YEARS of travelling, my harmonica and guitar have proved far better than any credit card. They’ve done nicely almost anywhere in the world and in any currency, they never seem to get overdrawn, and have always been good for providing drinks, meals and – the one thing that money can’t buy – friendship.

It’s a cliché, sure, but music really is an international language. And, like all languages, whether you speak “music” fluently or stumble a bit through a simplified version – so whether you’re a jazz sax virtuoso or a three-chords-and-a-holler kind of musician – just making the noises with a bit of enthusiasm and joining in the musical conversation is enough to make you a part of other cultures.

That’s the thing about travel and music. Ending up somewhere foreign, or even at home, and being able to pick up an instrument and play a tune, or sing a song, or – better still – give a full-throttle performance with plenty of slots for sing-alongs can lead to all kinds of adventures. And one doesn’t have to be that good at music to grab a guitar at a party on a Spanish beach to get a song going, or bang out some boogie-woogie on a Berlin bar’s piano, or sit in with a club band. Just do it and you’ll certainly get your drinks on the house, and who knows what else.

I first started mixing music and travelling as a teenager in the late 1970s, heading off with a guitar I could barely play, on long trips across Europe. I was inspired partly by the free-wheelin’ hobos of American folk music, such as Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who made hitting the road with a guitar and a harmonica sound like a passport to adventure, adoring girls and free drinks.

But I was also following an Irish tradition of heading abroad to do a bit of music-ing. Ronnie Drew went to Spain in the 1950s to teach English and play guitar. And a decade or so later Andy Irvine headed to the Balkans, coming back with a bouzouki, plenty of tunes in strange time signatures and a treasure trove of hard travellin’ stories.

EVEN AS Ibusked my way round streets, cafes and festivals across Europe through the early 1980s, numerous other musical chancers, ballad groups and trad bands were heading off to jig and reel through the famed folk clubs of Germany and the Lowlands.

Actually making money from mixing travel and music is a hard job whether you’re a household name, such as Bob Dylan on his never-ending tour, or a street musician banging out crowd pleasers on Grafton Street, down the London Underground, or along any one of the world’s bustling pedestrian streets. For a few seasons I travelled from the south of Spain to above the Arctic Circle, and deep into the old Eastern Bloc, living off a repertoire of ragtime, show songs and Americana.

But for every good day with a hefty haul of pesetas, kroner or forints, as well as bursts of applause and invitations to parties, there were miserable days of bad weather, unamused police and the smallest of small change in my guitar case. I realised that the “free life” of a wandering minstrel was much like any other job – turning up, putting the time in and producing something that people wanted to buy.

My most lucrative weeks were also my last as a footloose busker. Playing backing guitar on the Paris Metro with a Senegalese jazz saxophonist who was aiming to earn enough money to buy a cafe back home in Dakar we only performed what made money: Take Fiveand Summertime. Hour after soul-destroying hour, until my fingers bled and the tunes haunted me like some horrific form of tinnitus.

So, expectations of making a living, or even a drinking, from music while on the road can be over-ambitious. Malachy O’Neill, who now runs Livestock musical festival in Oxfordshire, remembers being in Buenos Aires at the turn of the millennium when the Argentine peso was so strong that it made even Irish drink prices seem moderate.

“But all things Irish were at the height of fashion and so on St Patrick’s Day I thought I’d sing for my – liquid – supper,” he recalls, “so, I borrowed a drum that looked a bit like a bodhrán, a mandolin and a guitar, and co-opted a pair of Irish musicians, well, okay, actually a Scotsman and a Mexican. We worked up all of three numbers, two reels and The Rocky Road to Dublin, and headed to the Shamrock Pub. Total disaster – the reaction ran from bemusement to disdain, but no-one bought us drinks.”

When it comes to providing travel adventures, music often works better outside the cent and euro economy, even for professional musicians. Hank Wedel, who has written for Christy Moore and plays with Declan Sinnott in Small Town Talk, tells of playing with mandolin virtuoso Ray Barron at Puck Fair in Killorglin on a miserable afternoon a few years ago. Their version of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Miimpressed an American couple – “old hippies” – who flew the two of them to America the following spring to provide the music at their 25th anniversary. “It was, to my mind, pure alchemy, real magic,” reckons Hank, “that my guitar transported me to Oklahoma.”

And Hank has heard, so as to speak, the music-as-travel-ticket scenario from the other side. Since 1994, his and Ray’s Monday night gigs in Charlie’s Bar in Cork have hosted rambling musicians from all over the world, many of whom have planned their holidays around return visits to play again in Ireland, amongst people who through music had become friends.

FRIENDSHIP, insight into other cultures and new experiences are what mixing music and travel are all about. Over the years I’ve spent a Christmas Day in a German recording studio, laying down train whistles and chug-chug sounds for a record being made by two Irish musicians, and worked for several weeks as harmonica player in a west African dance band in Birkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, while a three-man canoe trip down the Danube in Iron Curtain days took far longer than planned but was far more fun because the guitar we’d packed meant we spent as much time singing Beatles’ songs at parties across Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania as actually paddling.

Isobel Barnes, a talented amateur musician who’s proudest ad-lib moment was borrowing an accordion at a Dublin Arts Club summer party and setting the crowd dancing and whooping with her improvised jigs and reels, has often been excited by the join-in possibilities of music.

Though she sings and plays classical music on piano she tells of being on the Turkish-Syrian border with a chance group of people, including a famed Turkish lute player who plucked out classic Ottoman tunes which she countered with Irish songs.

“Then we all shook hands and hugged and kissed and laughed and drank,” she says, “and spent the rest of the night singing a concoction of Western pop, traditional Turkish and Arabic music, political songs and Irish ballads. It was music bringing an unlikely group together in a far off place.”

Katy Salvidge, who was a featured soloist on the Good Will Huntingsoundtrack and teaches fiddle and piano in west Cork, is another keen advocate of playing for fun, and outside one’s usual musical genre. “Whether you’re a professionally trained player or merely dabbling, there’s no excuse for not joining in with the local musical brigade. Only know classical music? You’ll no doubt end up playing along with jazz, not knowing what you’re doing but having a great time altogether with a mostly non-judgmental audience.”

I met Katy and her partner Graham in the south of Spain last year when a bunch of us met up to jam at parties. Seen through her eyes we were a motley crew: “There was a nuclear physicist who moonlighted as a sax player, a harmonica player who doubles as a writer, a singer who could have been a double for Elvis complete with looks and attitude, and a highly-strung bouzouki player.

“And we joined in on accordion and mandolin. I’m not sure how you’d have described the music that we made – rock’n’roll infused with a Celtic jazz blues perhaps – but then travelling with an instrument cannot fail to attract bizarre situations.”

So if you can play an instrument, consider taking it along with you on your next trip, or searching out bars with pianos or “house guitars” to commandeer wherever you end up. And if you can’t play? Then how about slipping a harmonica (the key of C or D will be the most useful), a tin whistle, or even a bodhrán into your luggage. It may take a while before you’re able to wow some bar full of foreigners with your skills, but at least the folks at home will be spared your first tuneless wailings, pipings or thuddery.

Where to go busking . . .

SOME COUNTRIES or cities prohibit busking, but it’s rare to have any more trouble than being asked to stop and move on. The more popular places to play often require a licence, granted after an audition.

Good casual busking pitches are often jealously protected by full-time “professionals”.

For fun and, possible, reward it’s often best to play something well and entertaining in a location – country, city or town – where street musicians are rare and locals and visitors have time to listen properly.

Think of the quirky or added-value twist; two of us made very good money for a morning spent playing The Third Man theme under the Prater Ferris wheel in Vienna.

In Ireland, on-street wisdom has it that Galway is the best bet for summer playing, Dublin’s Grafton Street is better suited to regular buskers (and best for non-music acts), while Cork Jazz Festival can reward those willing to play in October late-night weather to drink-enhanced audiences.

In the UK, casual players often do better in medium-sized provincial towns and tourist cities such as York or Bath. London’s famed busking pitches in Covent Garden and down the Underground can be lucrative but require auditions and licensing.

There are many busking festivals around the world from Japan to Poland and all streets in-between.

Though they tend to come and go those seemingly in for the long-haul include:

The Phoenix Arts Festival, Tullamore, Co Offaly, May 7th-8th

International Festival of Street Musicians, Ferrara, Italy, August 19th-28th.

World Buskers Festival, Christchurch, New Zealand, January 20th-30th, 2012.

To play music off the street in Europe, terrace cafes in Scandinavia, the Lowlands and France are sometimes happy for good musicians to play and pass the hat. Antwerp is famed for its hundreds of bars, many of which let musicians play formally or informally for tips.

In America, California’s Venice Beach is losing its cache as a busker’s gold mine, but in New Orleans Royal Street and Jackson Square have been supporting buskers for decades and are still good earners.

Australia’s music scene is centred on Melbourne, and licensed buskers can do well, but in competition with many good musicians playing the streets while waiting to break into the big time. Adelaide has a strong folk scene, and offers a better chance of getting casual gigs.

Musicians with the right repertoire can have fun providing beach party music at surf camps around the world, or in après-ski bars in smaller resorts. Though unlikely to make much money you should get a room and meals.

Finally, maybe go online rather than on the road by posting clips to Myspace. Malachy O’Neill has booked acts, such as Nila and the Rajas, for his Livestock Festival direct from the internet, while his own band, The Knights of Mentis, have been offered gigs at parties, festivals and pubs based on their own online videos.

JASPER WINN