There is a warm familiarity that accompanies the perpetual cacophony at Pike Place Market, where the sounds created by street performers dance through the air with the buzz of tourists and locals alike.
To some visitors, these performers are nothing more than a panhandling nuisance, best to be ignored. To others, they are fascinating representations of culture and tradition. Whatever the perception may be, it is just that: a perception.
As a musician with more-traditional aspirations to fame and glory, I realized that I had no idea what influences and motivations lay behind performing in public spaces. Were street performers just trying to make a living, or are they practicing a special form of art?
What I found is that busking is a world all its own.
Busking is a British slang-term of Spanish origin defined as dancing, singing or reciting in a public place. Its history can be traced at least as far back as the Roman Republic in the fifth century B.C.
Busking is a British slang-term of Spanish origin defined as dancing, singing or reciting in a public place.
Western culture has long associated busking with the lowest form of humanity, and there is a tradition of buskers facing government harassment, whether it be in Rome, Charlemagne’s France or Victorian England.
Musician and activist Jim Page said the capitalistic nature of the United States contributes to common attitudes toward busking. Compared to a commercial music scene dominated by agents and business interests, Page said busking is a few rungs lower on the social ladder.
Even today, busking is illegal in most of the world’s cities, and it might have been so in Seattle if not for Page’s efforts.
A folk singer out of California, Page arrived in Seattle in 1971, frequenting the streets and bars of Seattle. After being threatened with arrest, Page discovered that busking permits were available only to the those who were “blind or disabled.”
After placing fliers around town, Page showed up at a Seattle City Council meeting in 1974 and convinced councilmembers to overturn the existing law, which has since allowed buskers to play almost anywhere in the city. Page said he believes his efforts came at an opportune time, as the secrecy surrounding Watergate stood in perfect opposition to the free expression of busking.
Page said the modern political climate makes busking all the more important.
“Right now, with Trump in there and all those characters, we need more public speaking, not less,” he said. “I encourage people to go out and to sing, and to talk.”
And the city is certainly singing. Live music can be found all across Seattle, not only in venues, but in all kinds of public gathering spaces. Anyone who passes an audition can busk in public places, as long as common sense and courtesy is exercised. Portland, Denver and Boston are similarly welcoming to street performers, and do not require permits of any kind, save for a few streets or districts.
Of course, Seattle has no gathering space more prominent than Pike Place, and the historic market has a busking culture unique in itself.
Because it is a designated historic district, Pike Place has its own regulations for buskers looking to perform in front of 10 million annual visitors. An annual permit must be purchased for $30, and buskers are relegated to a choice of 15 stalls around the market from which they can play. It’s first-come, first-served for the most coveted spots, and performers can spend hours waiting for a slot to open up.
Performance must be entirely acoustic at Pike Place, with certain instruments outright prohibited. This revelation made it clear that the sound filling the market is nuanced and carefully controlled, bringing a special balance to the attraction.
One of the most popular spots is known as “The Clock,” and is situated at the market’s entrance, right in front of the Pike Place Fish Market. It is here that I found the Speakeasy Jazz Cats, a ragtime band that harks back to American music of the early 20th century. Sam Deleo’s coarse vocals and rhythmic guitar pair well with John Salzano’s fluid clarinet-playing, creating a charismatic blend of tradition that attracted quite a crowd.
“We’re the fauna here,” Salzano said. The clarinet player added that busking is to him natural and rehabilitative, and that he has the ability to work when he wants. After 45 years of playing on the streets and in venues, he said he still enjoys the unique experience that busking offers.
Outside of the “first” Starbucks location, Michael Bell played some clarinet licks of his own. With no vocals or rhythm section to accompany him, Bell carried the melody on his own. After 18 years playing in San Francisco, Bell has been playing in Seattle for the last 18.
“I love to play for people, and people love it,” Bell said. “It’s better than watching TV all day.”
Near the entrance to Storyville Coffee, Fernando Gramal stands with his guitar and panflute, taking control of both rhythmic and melodic duties. On two of his strumming fingers are strings attached to little figurines on the ground. As Gramal plays, his figures dance along to the music.
Gramal has been playing in Seattle for just over a decade. After leaving his home in Ecuador, Gramal and his brother played as far away as Amsterdam before settling in the Pacific Northwest. While Gramal used to split his time between busking and working a day job, he now spends most of his week playing at the market.
“You meet people from all over the world,” he said. “I know they like what I play.”
Despite my research, I still hadn’t grasped the unique experience of playing in the streets. It became apparent that there was nothing like the real thing, and so I decided to become a one-time busker.
With the help of Emily Crawford, Pike Place’s director of communications and marketing, and David Dickinson, daystall program manager, I was given a bevy of advice, as well as a guest permit to perform for a day.
Situating myself in a quiet spot near the gum wall known only as “The Cave,” I propped up a camping chair in the afternoon heat and got to playing. Having played in plenty of venues across in Seattle and Portland, I thought the experience would be a familiar one.
I was wrong.
Playing in a setting in which the audience is not obliged to watch you, the musician must be all the more dedicated to capturing attention. I was stunned watching passersby do their best to ignore making eye contact with me, and it was then that I understood the stigma buskers must face all the time.
There was, however, a bright spot at the end of my day. While playing one of my original songs, a group of children gathered to listen, and when all was said and done, I earned a whopping 15 cents.
Even for a fairly experienced performer such as myself, busking is a different animal, and takes some practice. The extra projection and charisma required was intimidating to my shy demeanor, but the personal connection made with the audience is truly special.
I left the market with a greater appreciation for buskers, who bring their music from around the world to form a melting pot in our city and many others. There is a genuine passion in busking that is innocent and uncorrupted by the touch of the commercial music scene.
I left my performance with the understanding that Seattle’s buskers are integral cogs in the well-oiled machine that is Pacific Northwest culture.
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