Oh, the Buskers I’ve Known (or Death to the Peruvian Pan Flute Mafia)

A good busker can turn the crankiest of commuters (me) into the happiest of humans no matter what the time of day. A bad busker can drive me to fantasies of instrumenticide. For me the difference between a good busker and a bad busker is not always related to level of talent but has much more to do with the artistic honesty of the performer and the performance.

The worst offenders are those guys with the Peruvian pan flutes playing their crappy, amplified garbage. They generally wear some kind of “native” dress to fool the unknowing rube into thinking that their craft is somehow genuine. It may have been genuine at some point, but the fact that they seem to be in every city in the world leads one to believe that somewhere there is an academy churning out pan flute trios to terrorize the world and make big bucks for some musical pimp. (Kind of like the time Homer Simpson went to Krusty the Klown Clown College…) Since 1989, I have seen these groups all over Europe and North America. The bland homogeneous nature of their music makes them the McDonald’s of the busking world.

And like McDonald’s, their omnipresence displaces a wide variety of performers that are much more original and life affirming. The most egregious example of this I encountered here in Washington DC. At the Dupont Circle Farmer’s market a few years ago, there was a group of three junior high-aged kids playing their instruments. No amplifiers, no CDs to sell, just three kids making music and a little extra money. The following week the Peruvian pan flute mafia showed up with their overly loud amplified garbage and drowned the kids out.

The beauty of busking is that it showcases variety, creativity, and oftentimes musical expressions that have roots in the local area. I have heard buskers that have moved me to tears or made me smile uncontrollably.

Some of my favorites have included:

  • an old blind woman in Lisbon singing traditional fado music in a haunting contralto with nothing but a triangle to accompany her
  • an accordionist playing on a warm summer’s evening who made Washington DC feel like Paris on the Potomac
  • two guys with acoustic guitars covering Indigo Girls tunes in Munich.

Some of the weirdest include a gorilla playing a trumpet on the London Underground and a bunch of shirtless guys banging on boxes singing “We’re Not Going to Take It”. Some of the more annoying ones (beside the pan flute mafia) include the guys who sit for hours playing the same monotonous rhythms on some old buckets (enough already, it was creative the first 82 times I heard it…) or the guy who regularly plays the trumpet really loudly on the street in DC.

I know not everyone feels the same way that I do. Most people really don’t care a whole lot about buskers. Recently the Washington Post did an experiment by placing the world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell at a Metro stop in DC and no one paid much attention to him. I am not sure if I would have recognized Mr. Bell, but I do know that I would have stopped to put some money in his case. I alight from that very same Metro station every weekday and on the rare occasion that I hear a busker as I ascend the long escalator I am immediately drawn out of my morning funk. Unfortunately, I missed Mr. Bell’s appearance but I guess that means I have an extra dollar for the amateurs that are out there trying to make a buck by making me happy.

2 thoughts on “Oh, the Buskers I’ve Known (or Death to the Peruvian Pan Flute Mafia)

  1. Elisabeth April 15, 2007 / 2:19 pm

    Once I saw four guys playing The Beatles in the metro in Paris. I remember the lead being the most beautiful human male on the planet. Every other hot guy you could name is Steve Buscemi compared to this guy. And they were great. I might have ended up giving them all my money if I wasn’t late for class.


  2. harriet June 13, 2010 / 12:41 pm

    I doubt if I'd have recognised Joshua Bell but I do enjoy good buskers playing and like you I do give money if I like what they are doing.


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