In 2011 I went to forty major cities in thirty countries on five continents to film street performers. We went to a new city every week. Traveling like that – seeing so many cities in such a short time – it doesn’t take long to start to feel that city centres are nothing but a tool set up to help people get from point A to point B via a Starbucks.
Only one thing continued to stand out: the buskers.
Buskers are street performers that entertain a transient audience. As such, they create art that reflects the cultural, social and economic state of their audience in order to engage them in a short period of time. The result is that their music, dance, theatre and comedy has a different flavour in each city. Comparing how the buskers connect to their audiences in each location gives you more information about current local culture there than, say, the museums, restaurants, shops or bars, as a busker’s audience is much more diverse. Buskers are a real mirror of their surroundings, projected in a way designed to move you.
What follows is a top ten list of the best busker cities pitches in the world, based on nothing more than my own experiences. The buskers in each pitch have obviously affected my choices, so this is far from an academic list.
However, while on this epic journey we interviewed over three hundred street performers around the world, asking them why they busk and what issues they face. It shouldn’t surprise you that in (almost all of) the locations mentioned, street performance is considered by local authorities to be a cultural endeavour rather than as a criminal act.
I can think of no better advert to start using buskers as creative Placemakers. All of these pitches are famous, popular, and more vibrant thanks to the street performers in that location – and they don’t cost the government a cent to be there.
1. Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech
Setting. A large square surrounded by markets and small roads. There’s an unmarked throughway on one side, complete with a stream of donkey pulled carts, bikes, taxis and mopeds. There are fruit and quality food stalls (olives, figs, nuts, etc), and a complex of tents that serve grilled meat late into the night.
Inhabitants. Tourists, plus goading merchants, snake wearers, monkey trainers, henna ninjas (they tattoo you before you can react, and then demand money) and wizened beggars using every trick in the book to gain your attention.
How it’s run. It depends on the act. We were told that the snake charmers were like a mafia family running the square, stopping outsiders from coming in. This sounds a little fanciful, but also quite believable – you just don’t argue with a man with a snake.
Buskers. At any one point there may be a hundred buskers performing there. Gnawa groups in ceremonial dress and hats dance, do flips and play drums. Others put monkeys and snakes on tourists, asking for a few dirhams for photos. Soothsayers, magicians, belly dancers, storytellers, djembe players, and acrobats are dotted around. At night, the square fills with groups of singers in jeans and T-shirts singing local songs where everyone knows the words.
The main event is the snake charmers. Dozens of poisonous snakes hiss and snarl at their captors, who, in turn, kick them, squeeze them and hold them just out of reach of their faces, to the delight and unease of incredulous spectators.
Djemaa el Fna feels at times like a pilgrimage, where travelers and locals alike congregate to take in a taste of local charm and culture. At times it’s more like a pillage, where forceful, persistent entertainers demand you pay for a moment’s pleasure.
The squeal of horns, the fast-paced drum bands and the intense heat combine to create a dizzy atmosphere that thrills you while making you feel ever so slightly claustrophobic. Before you go, put change in your pocket, take a deep breath, and get ready to immerse yourself in one of the craziest places on Planet Earth.
The buskers in Marrakesh are a great example of the social, cultural and historical role that buskers have played for many years in the history of urban settlements. The marketplace has always been a home for street performers, and in Djemaa el Fna, it still is. It is also a great example of the successful mixed use of space: commercial, touristic, recreational, and public life.
2. The Royal Mile at the Edinburgh Fringe
Setting. The Fringe is the world’s largest outdoor festival. Of the two million people who visit Edinburgh every August, half walk up the Royal Mile. The Mile is surrounded by large stone buildings, tourist and food shops, and the St Giles Cathedral. It is also home to ridiculously placed knee-high, just-out-of-sight concrete bollards along the pavement, which cause at least one injury a day during the fest. This is not helped by how treacherous the pavement gets when it’s wet. In other words, it’s an overwhelmingly packed body of distracted people on a badly-marked obstacle course.
Inhabitants. The mile gets so busy that festival organizers seriously fear that at some point people will be crushed to death. Other than visitors, the Mile is also home to hundreds of actors and promoters who attempt to devise the most engaging ways of getting passersby to promise to come to their improv comedy nights.
How it’s run. A team of 40 volunteers and administrators with walkie-talkies and headsets manage the space. Every morning the performers (divided into “street performers”, who do 45 minute variety shows, and “buskers”, who are your walk-by musicians, jugglers and magicians) gather to enter the draw for pitches.
By 10 a.m. the schedule is worked out, their names go up on A-frame boards and the crowds begin to arrive. Each of the 10 or so pitches has its own volunteer doing the timekeeping, showing 15, 5 and 2-minute warning signs to the performers, letting them know when they need to be out of the way for the next show. Funds for the Mile are supplied by Virgin Money — “The bank that performs on the high street”.
Buskers. At one end of the spectrum you have the 45-minute “circle show” performer, who engineer and entertain huge crowds using far more complicated techniques than most theatre directors will ever learn (they even hire old-timer buskers as “consultants” for their shows). At the other end of the spectrum you have first-time buskers who’ve made the journey to the Fringe to find out if they can earn enough to live on.
I’ve seen great artists die out there, break down in tears and decide never to busk again. I’ve seen average entertainers blossom, taking inspiration from other buskers to hone a fantastic show. I’ve seen a six year old doing a stunning rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on a harmonica, a heavy-metal bagpiper shooting 6-foot flames out of his pipes, a man drink and then project 3 litres of water out of his belly, and a guy/girl duo who dress up like a giant costumed penis and vagina for an interpretive dance routine (to Scotland’s credit, the Fringe didn’t receive a single complaint about this risky act the year it turned up).
The circle shows have the best lines, the biggest crowds and the prestige, but often the artists you connect to most are the smaller, weirder performers, the sword swallowers, the highland dancers…the costumed genitals, too. The world’s biggest buskerfest lives up to its reputation.
Forget about the rest of the Edinburgh Fringe (like the free stand up and experimental theatre shows). Just the street part of the fest entertains 1 MILLION people. If the Royal Mile were a music festival, it would be the third-largest in the world. And yet, there are no stages needed, no lighting, no amps, no tickets, and no ads. Buskers bring elated tourists right into the heart of the city, and the only infrastructure they require is two large containers to dump all their stuff overnight. They even pay for their own accommodation. As far as cost-per-attendee goes, there’s really nothing else like it on the planet.
[To put this in perspective, Glastonbury Music Festival costs £22m to put on for only 175,000 people, a rate of £125 per head. The Edinburgh Fringe Society spends £150,000 on the Royal Mile, entertaining at least 1m people, at a rate of £0.15 per head. Considering the £88m that the Fringe adds to the Edinburgh economy, the buskers are a great deal!]
3. Khaosan Road
Setting. Bangkok’s legendary drinking spot, lined with bars, a backpacker’s ghetto. Tiny-roomed hotels, craft shops, restaurants, tour guides, and barbecued insects bring in the footfall, and no traffic make it an ideal pitch, if you can handle the revelers.
Inhabitants. Backpackers, tourists, hawkers and partygoers drinking late into the night. It just gets busier as the day goes on, so many of the best performers come out at night.
How it’s run. On paper, busking is illegal, unless you have an “artists visa” and a work permit or something similar, which seems very difficult to get. No foreigner is able to obtain these licences. However, Khaosan Road seems to be the only place that a busker might get away with it, and be “allowed” to perform. Some local bars are busker-friendly, and enjoy the attention that having buskers outside brings to their businesses. Buskers need only ask permission from these bar owners to be given the go ahead.
Buskers. Scary, smoking magicians who look like they practice the dark arts, child breakdancers (as young as 8) raising school money, and explosive fire jugglers. These are the perfect acts for this late-night drunken throng. They appear out of nowhere, crowds form around them, and just like that, they’re gone. Mysterious, edgy and very, very cool.
Aside from the wonderful, sometimes bizarre talent you see here, Khaosan Road is fabulous for feeling a little less organised than most other pedestrianized streets. The restaurants are close, the lights are scattered but bright, the drinkers are out in force…it’s not for the weak-hearted. Spontaneity, grit, and skill are needed, and the local buskers have plenty of everything. Without street performers, the only entertainment would be in the venues.
Like other major pedestrianized spots, Khaosan Road is at risk of seeming too touristy. Were it not for these spontaneous artistic displays, the street could be all-sell and not enough culture. Buskers are the only “free” entertainment out there – they don’t even do a hat speech to get you to donate.
4. Shibuya Crossing
Setting. The world’s most famous “scramble crossing”. An intersection where massive crowds assemble on the corners, waiting for traffic lights to stop all vehicular traffic. The surrounding sidewalks are wide, broken only by subway station entrances.
Inhabitants. At peak times, two and a half thousand people can cross the road every time the lights change. On the four corners, pedestrians assemble in their hundreds. Once those crowds are moving, they look like four advancing armies, charging forth in all directions. Somehow they manage to avoid each other, a feat of judgment that watching it makes one proud to be human.
How it’s run. Quote: “In theory, busking permits are available but they are notoriously hard to get and strictly regulated. If you are caught soliciting money on a tourist visa you are breaking the law and face severe penalties, or even possible incarceration.” However, police does not usually intervene, until a complaint is made. Buskers may need to worry more about the Yakuza, who often charge buskers “rent” for using their turf.
Buskers. This is, of course, a highly subjective review, but on our travels we saw one of the best live music acts in the world at the Shibuya scramble crossing: an insanely talented drummer, a bassist on a whittled down electric double bass, and a saxophonist wired into an effects pedal. The band, who call themselves “Ethnic Minority” play loud, fast, lively jazz that turns a swarming throng of people into an allied gathering of enthusiastic jazz lovers. Few could create a dedicated cultural place in such conditions, especially with a genre considered to be dying out. Quite simply one of the most powerful street acts in the world.
Unlike the other pitches mentioned here, buskers are not the main reason to go to the Shibuya scramble crossing. You go there to see people walk across an intersection (a good location to watch is through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the second story of the McDonalds that overlooks it).
However, Shibuya is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of the transformative power of street performers. What was chaotic becomes ordered. What was claustrophobic becomes a mutual cultural experience. Amazing.
5. The French Quarter of New Orleans
Doreen Ketchens in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Setting. Bourbon Street is a highly sexualised drinker’s paradise. Bars lining the roads, strip clubs, fast-food joints and a state of permanent horny hangover from Mardi Gras entice revellers out every night of the week. Jackson Square is a National Historic Landmark park inside a pedestrianized square, lined by 19th century red-brick buildings.
Inhabitants. Tourists interested in culture/architecture and revelers interested in drinking, in equal measure.
How it’s run. Busking is legal in most areas. There is a mandatory licence with a low annual cost, amplification is regulated, there is a curfew, and as long as the busker is considerate, taking others (shop-owners, residents, passers-by etc) into account, there’s little chance of having a problem. Imprisonment is a potential punishment for contravention of the laws.
However, busking regulations are currently being revised and from now on will fall under the city’s sound ordinance. You could imagine that this will make life easier for buskers: sometimes the loud noise of the bars and clubs cause a problem for buskers to be heard. Most of the code is not enforced since Hurricane Katrina. The hats, donations and art sales are said to be meager.
Buskers. I could write a book on buskers in New Orleans (and someone already has). Instead, I’m just going to list some, and let YouTube do the descriptions. Doreen Ketchens, the world’s most famous busking clarinettist. Joslyn Alana Paige, a.k.a. NOLA Tron. Uncle Louis, the stillest human statue we met. Grandpa Elliot, one of the most famous grandpas in the world. Last time I was there I saw a nude, blue, body-painted girl, “My Nickel” (a scientifically hilariously-named child “tin man” who is the son of a silver adult tin man), and Big Mama Sunshine, who’s either crazy or an incredible method actor.
NOLA supports one of the most diverse busking scenes in the world. You’ll have just as much fun here in the street as inside, especially as you can drink in the street. This is perhaps the most mixed of all the spaces mentioned in this series – residents, bars, businesses, tourists, and a wide variety of buskers all in the oldest district in New Orleans, full of French and Creole-influenced antebellum townhouses with picturesque balconies full of loudmouthed, drunk college students watching everyone walk by. Amazing.
6. New York City
Setting. There is really no point in me describing New York, as you know it already. It’s the most filmed city in the world.
Inhabitants. Amerika Psycho, a book I picked up in a Havanan internet cafe (nestled amongst biographies of the late Che Guevara) gives a perfect summation of New York life:
People pound pavements shouting into mobiles; the skyscrapers double as billboards, the cafe dockets are emblazoned with bold reminders, ‘gratuity not included’…[and] don’t imagine you can counter the vibe by cruising the Museum of Modern Art, where the ‘voluntary donation’ is compulsory and the marketing relentless.
Art and money, culture and commerce, audience and finance; nowhere else that I have been have these links been so obvious and absolute. And New Yorkers are a ruthless bunch. It is tough to catch the attention of the city’s mp3-wearing, instantly suspicious, seen-it-all-before locals. To strive to be noticed is to strive to be crazy: you have to be unhinged if you are not to blend in amongst all the other talented and ambitious millions. To be able to cope with that pressure, to own it, and to create a cultural experience for your audience is tougher in New York than anywhere else.
How it works. Although many of the cops would disagree, it is legal to play music on the streets of New York – the Constitution protects it. However, you do need a permit for a sound device such as a loudspeaker, megaphone or stereo, or to perform in or next to a park. The police have an unofficial quota of the number of people they must fine/harass every week and buskers are an easy target, so many buskers go to court year-on-year to have their tickets dismissed by understanding judges.
Buskers. It is in this atmosphere that the street performers of New York compete for cash. There’s a shameful amount of wealth in Manhattan, millions of tourists and the potential to make hundred-dollar hats. Working those streets can be glorious or devastating. Ambitious performers combine the pizzazz of Broadway with the entrepreneurial spirit of Wall Street, using tight routines and shameless tactics to get big hats and avoid arrest. They shout loud.
New York was the inspiration for my first website about buskers, www.undercoverny.com. I used to ride my bicycle around the city, using a cheap point-and-click to capture the city’s street artists. I was so impressed by these performers’ ability to freeze time, to burst bubbles, to interrupt the busy bees and worker ants, “transforming public places into social spaces,” in this, of all cities. Hailing from all over the world, buskers in New York have power, beauty, vibrancy, talent and a universality that could – no, should be seen by everyone, appreciated and cherished for what they are and what they do.
7. Plaza de Armas in Santiago
Chinchineros, or “spinning drummers” in Plaza de Armas.
Setting. Towering palm trees, lawns, benches, hedges, a bandstand and flowers, pathways that meander in no particular direction, a large pedestrianized zone at the edges, with picturesque monuments, fountains and surrounded by epic historical buildings.
Inhabitants. This is one of the cultural hubs of Santiago, full of tourists, artists and locals. The star of the show is the square itself, which is one of the calmest and serene parts of the city. Still, it cannot escape the city in which it lies – at one point we saw a gaggle of young girls pose in front of a demanding photography crew (and their parents) to do a fashion shoot. All-too-adult poses made it perfect for a human statue to imitate, awkward as it was.
How it’s run. Busking is, refreshingly, part of Santiago’s cultural policy, instead of being controlled by the police. You need a license, and specific pitches have curfews. Most buskers in Santiago tend to ignore the permits, which is fine – if they don’t get any complaints.
Buskers. Locals in Santiago are fond of telling you that Santiago is “the most European city in South America”. This may or may not be true, but it does have one of the most European-style pitches we found there, complete with 45-minute circle shows using the same hat-lines you hear across the Atlantic (but in Spanish): “Ladies and Gentlemen, nobody pays me to be here but you. Not so funny anymore, eh?” and “Everybody count, okay? Chileans, uno dos tres. English, one to three. French, un deux trois. Italian, I II III. Americans…just shoot your guns in the air.”
This is a great example of how a space can be both tranquil and used by artists. There were always pitches being used while we were there, and yet it was easy to find resting spots with few distractions other than the birds – if, that is, you can sit far enough away from the berating yells of amplified street evangelists. [There is one other must-see street performance in Santiago, the weekly protests that end with tanks firing jets of pepper spray into crowds of disaffected students, followed by the charging of horses through streets littered with burning tyre bonfires.]
8. Xochimilco, Mexico City
Mariachis…on boats, in Xochimilco.
Inhabitants. People on boats. Most of them tourists. Some of them drunk.
How it’s run. Well, busking is illegal in Mexico City. It seems that police officers interpret relevant laws however they feel, since there’s no specific by-law to refer to for busking. Xochimilco is so far removed from city norms – a musical, mariachi-filled canal – that it’s tough to imagine the police interfering here anyway.
Buskers. If you don’t know about it, this busking hotspot sounds like a fairy tale. You float down the canal on a trajinera (a boat much like a gondola, captained by a man with an oar). Forget about the floating gardens or hanging dolls, for after a few minutes you are literally surrounded by floating mariachi bands, who moor themselves to your boat and perform for tips. They perform the classics, dress in fabulous sequined suits, have an average age of about 80 and…they’re floating mariachis!
This is the only offshore busking pitch I know of, and therefore one of my favourites, if only for its novelty.
9. Covent Garden Market
Setting. Simply put, Covent Garden is a neo-classical central building full of boutique stores and cafés, flanked by market stalls, surrounded by a wide cobblestone area. On its edges sit many more shops and restaurants, most with chairs and tables in front of them. Covent Garden is in a prime location, right in the heart of London.
Inhabitants. Five million people a week go through Covent Garden, including tourists, shoppers, commuters and local residents. A large minority of visitors are there specifically to watch the street performers.
How it’s run. The “circle shows” (the 45 minute variety acts) on the West Piazza are run by the buskers themselves. New performers can do auditions on weekdays, and only need to show that they are able to gather (and keep) a large crowd entertained. They can do this without the permission of Capco, the market owners, because the ground they’re actually busking on is owned by St. Paul’s Church.
The indoor pitch and the courtyard reserved for opera singers are auditioned by Capco on the first Monday of every month. Human statues between the local station and the market are there almost all day, and are said to be placed there by a gang who collect a percentage of the tips.
Buskers. Opera singers serenade people in the heart of the square, musicians and statues entertain people around the edges, but the big hitters are the variety acts who perform in the “West Piazza”. Buskers gather every morning to throw their names into a hat, choosing spots for the rest of the day. Eddie Izzard and Pierce Brosnan are two notable celebrities who began their careers here, as well as many legendary busking hall-of-famers. Week by week, buskers with incredible talents wow crowds who are specifically there to see the performers. Highlights include a fat man who does the tightrope, and an Argentinian man who does the best Charlie Chaplin routine I’ve ever seen.
Covent Garden is one of the most prestigious pitches on the busker scene, but it can also seem like a bit of an old-boys club, slightly intimidating to new acts who much prove themselves worthy to the regulars. However, it is also one of the most politically charged spots, with the Covent Garden Street Performers Association set up to protect buskers’ rights in the area. It is for that reason, plus its remarkable pedigree, that Covent Garden makes this list – no top ten busking list would be complete without it.
10. Traffic Lights, Worldwide
This doesn’t really fit in a “best cities” post. But, these are one of the most pervasive of all venues for buskers. There are also exactly the same in every city in the world, and, as such, are separate from the cities themselves.
Setting. Cars stopped at busy intersections.
Inhabitants. Outside of Europe and North America, traffic lighting is a very popular way of earning on the street. Often only the rich can afford cars, and so traffic lights are the only places where buskers have access to congregations of wealthy people. The audience isn’t quite captive — they only need to interact or experience the performance if they decide to roll their windows down.
Buskers. “Traffic lighters” jump out when the light turns red, do a 30-second show, hat the cars for 30 seconds, then jump back onto the sidewalk just in time to avoid being run over, repeating the act again and again for hours.
Traffic lights are popular with hippies, circus school graduates, and travelers, as every traffic light is the same and you don’t need to fight with locals for a pitch. It’s also popular with people who live in the poorer parts on the outskirts of town, who travel to the city centres to perform for the fancy people in their fancy cars. Traffic light buskers tend to go hand in hand with people offering to clean your windows and sell you sweets.
There is another form of traffic lighter who performs at this venue: the traffic mime. These are comedians armed with whistles, who mix physical theatre and imitation with semi-dangerous tricks, pretending they’re pushing buses, jumping in and out of strangers’ cars, capturing pretty passers-by with invisible lassoes and running away from “scary” miniature poodles. Tuga, a mime in Santiago, Chile, considers public mime to be a radical disruption of the public domain, and even teaches a mime class specifically for the great outdoors.
Imagine every traffic light came with a busker. No more stress. No more boredom. No more using that time to text. Surely this is the cheapest form of road safety ever implemented in a city; it’s free!
I’ve seen slack-ropers, German wheel acrobats, poi spinners and a wealth of jugglers at lights. My favourite is Manuel, a man who lives in a favela on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, who travels into the city centre every day to repeat the same juggling routine 30 times-an-hour at the same traffic lights for several hours running. We asked what he’d say if someone called him a “glorified beggar”, and he gave us a response that could have come out of the mouths of art history graduates worldwide. “Absolutely not! There is a rich tradition of public performing in my country, stretching back centuries. I am just continuing it. And people like what I do. I make people happy.” Lovely.
This is the second guest article by Vivian Doumpa and Nick Broad, founders of The Busking Project, an advocacy movement that aims to encourage governments worldwide to embrace this form of free public art in our public spaces. Stay tuned for more on this long-standing form of expression, earning a living – and triangulation – from Nick and company.