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Pavement Music

by Dudumalingani Mqombothi / 04.02.2014

The street musicians form the tapestry of the Cape Town city centre. One late afternoon, the sound of a man singing penetrates the window of my apartment. I cannot make out the words to his songs; he sings in a foreign language, but I can hear that he is singing opera music. His voice drags me to the window.

He sings only one song for a long time then abruptly stops. An uncomfortable silence remains, leaving an eerie, empty presence. And then after 10 minutes have passed, he begins a new song. The notes sound rough and though he sings with vigour, they come out uncertain. In spite of this, the man carries on. He negotiates his notes with the buzz of traffic and kids in the city garden nearby. I stand by the window mesmerized.

He is in a black sweater and grey pants. He is not clean. He might be homeless but perhaps he is not. Maybe this is his artist look. Above him a stream of birds fly in a slanted movement, bending over the Iziko Museum and then they disappear behind trees. He is standing by the entrance to Iziko Museum, facing a restaurant but with a road in between, keeping him at a distance. The sun is infrequent, hiding behind clouds and then appearing again. The wind is lukewarm. That wind carries his voice away, into peoples’ apartments.

A middle-aged man comes out of the restaurant and gives him money, then returns to his meal. Another man appears and he too gives him money. The busker doesn’t stop singing; he simply nods and carries on.

When he does stop singing, he puts on a set of headphones and walks into the wilderness of the garden. He leaves behind mysteries – for inquisitive minds to wonder about. What is he listening to? Who is he? Where did he learn to sing opera?

Busking is the oldest form of public performance. It allows musicians to show off their singing to the public and to make money from it. Joshua Bell, a classical violinist, played as an incognito street busker at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC in 2007. Bon Jovi busked at Covent Garden in London and the Red Square in Moscow. Tracy Chapman began her career busking on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Paul McCartney of The Beatles donned a disguise and busked on Broad Street in 1984. “So I was standing there plucking chords and no one noticed it was me,” he explained. “No one wants to look a busker in the eye, of course, ‘cus then they get his life story.”

Opposite FNB on St Georgies Mall in the city centre, there are two blind buskers that strangely sit opposite each other. Though they cannot see each other, they know of each other’s presence from the singing. The female busker’s voice is big and uncontrolled. She takes one note very high, the next very low and then begins to hum the song.

Opposite her is perhaps the most famous busker of them all. Not famous for his enchanting voice, or his amazing guitar skills, but for something else. No one cares that his guitar is never tuned and that it is impossible to make out what he is saying. Late last year, police officers smashed his guitar, citing that he was contravening city laws by performing longer than his permit allowed. But the man had been busking at the corner of St Georges Mall and Shortmarket Street since 2008. The news of the assault was captured on video by someone walking past and the sight of police officers smashing his guitar on the pavement was heartbreaking. When the news of the assault broke out, he became the most famous busker in town. Musicians and the public organised a march to show their support for him. They donated a new guitar to him, in all innocence encouraging him to continue playing. Playing whatever he wants to play, even if it does not really resemble music.

Pavement Music

The noise of buskers appears to be everywhere in the city. It filters through the streets, choreographing its sounds with perfection, to be rescued by ears of city walkers. Regardless of what one makes of their talent, even if one finds them annoying to some degree, it appears that the poetic license of being a street busker means that you can be a bad musician or even a terrible one but get accepted.

Perhaps the best way to experience a city is to take it apart into fragments and then begin to absorb it. The buskers’ voices do not echo in one’s mind for long. But without them the city sounds would be incomplete, like a symphony without the strings.

*Images ©Dudumalingani Mqombothi

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