When she got the call, Sunshine Hahn was sitting in the bottom floor of Pike Place Market's indoor mall, strumming her guitar and hoping for the occasional tip from passersby. Then came her break. She had a chance to perform onstage at the market's center.
Hahn took that opportunity with a vengeance. She ran upstairs, guitar in hand, and launched into her brand of rhythm-infused folk. She drowned out the fish-tossers with her booming voice and acoustic guitar, drawing marketplace patrons to the stage until the crowd overflowed the designated seating area. And just like that, Sunshine Hahn made the jump from the market's bottom floor to being its main attraction.
Hahn's breakthrough sounds improbable, but this is busking, the practice of performing in the street for tips that begins literally at the drop of a hat, if not the opening of a guitar case.
And, Sun., Sept. 16 at Pike Place Market was Buskers' Festival. Steel guitars and didgeridoos lined the sidewalks, backed by musicians of all ages and styles. The event showcased street performance talent while punctuating the end of Seattle's official Buskers Week, as well as providing the perfect venue for someone like Hahn to get her start.
"The organizers heard me playing on the street, so they told me to give them my number, and said they would call me if there was a no-show, and that's pretty much what happened," Hahn says. "It was one of the best days of my life."
And if Hahn ever becomes famous, her story will be added to the long history of busking in Seattle. Seattle Buskers' Week, the only such official week dedicated to street musicians in the country, began in 2004, when founding members of the Pike Place Market Performers Guild Jim Page and Artis the Spoonman were having lunch with community activist Nick Licata, who's now president of the Seattle City Council. "We were talking, and I slipped in that there ought to be a Buskers' Month," Page says. "Without missing a beat, Licata looked at me and said 'Jim, a month might be a little much, but we could do a week.'"
This wasn't Page's first trip to City Hall on busking's behalf. Thirty years earlier, he was performing on a sidewalk when a motorcycle cop threatened him with arrest for playing without a permit. But there was a catch: permits were only granted to the blind and otherwise disabled. Page, however, was determined to change the law. "I went down to Mayor's Office and got the ball rolling, everybody got on board, and before you knew it, street performing was legal in any public place, whether you had a permit or not."
Busking in public space has been legal ever since, and Page is passionate about it. For Page, busking isn't just a way to make a buck; it has an important social function.
"If we are going to have an authentic culture, we need to have art in the streets and parks," he says. "There are no agents, no publicity managers, no censors. The only people you answer to are yourself and your audience."
That connection between individuals is what draws Mark Mukunda and his eight-foot didgeridoo down to Pike Place Market every day in the summer. "I like it when the audience gets into it, when kids come up in front of you and dance." Makunda fell in love with the didgeridoo 10 years ago at a festival in Joshua Tree, California, where he saw some of the best Australian Aboriginal players in the world. He picked up a used didgeridoo from a friend who was getting rid of it, and he's been playing ever since.
At Sunday's Festival, Mukunda sat cross-legged on the corner adjacent to a pastry shop, staring placidly into space as low, quivering sounds came from the bell of his instrument. As pedestrians ambled past, most paused to watch and listen. A few dropped coins in Makunda's hat, but most just smiled appreciatively and went on their way.
But while this may have seemed mundane to some people, Mukunda was thrilled. "I made some money today, and I got to do some playing," he says. "Busking is about showing the world that it is possible to follow your dreams. I do what I love and make a living out of it." Page has made his living out of street performing since 1971, but he has no plans to retire. "I'll be playing until I physically can't," he says.
And when that day comes, Sunshine Hahn, Mark Mukunda and a host of other up-and-coming musicians will be there, hats on the sidewalk and instruments in hand, to take up the mantle.