That Time I Saw Michael Jackson Perform in Piazza De Popolo
Okay, so maybe this particular Michael Jackson was an Italian imposter. But in makeup, a bright red jacket, white socks, and black loafers, he strutted around his small section of the square in a fairly successful imitation of the King of Pop. My classmates and I watched among a large half-circle of tourists – all taking photos or videos and occasionally staying long enough to drop a coin or bill into the performer’s hat when he passed it around the crowd.
Until I started traveling in Europe I hadn’t paid much attention to street performers. Or perhaps I just hadn’t encountered many stateside. There were a few memories –Santa Monica Pier (though in January it wasn’t exactly hoppin’), hip hop dancers on the New York City Subway (a bit overwhelming), and the characters outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood (does that even count?), but mostly it’s memories of Europe that bring sharp instances into focus.
My first trip, when I was 23, I met a Polish traveller at a bar in Dresden, Germany who told me he was making his way through Europe by busking at every city he stopped through. It was not only the first time I’d heard the term “busking,” but also the first time it dawned on me that the performers I saw might be out there for more than just a hobby.
I’ve remarked again and again while telling travel stories just how much I love the amount of music on offer in the streets of European cities – accordions, saxophones, pianos, drums, guitars (acoustic, electric, flamenco, and always, always some version of “Wonderwall” by Oasis) – it seemed there wasn’t a square or park that wasn’t improved by talented, or sometimes just above-average, musicians.
It’s an art that’s been around for ages. The term “busking” in the English language was first noted in the 1860s in the UK, but people have been performing the streets for money in every major culture dating back to antiquity. The French had the troubadours, the Germans called them Minnesingers, Mariachis in Mexico. There were Romani gypsies from the Mediterranean, and the popular traveling “medicine shows” in the US.
Over the course of 4 years of regular international travel I found Michael Jackson, fire dancers, levitating monks, African tumbling troupes, statue-people in a variety of styles and colors, jugglers, magicians, roller skaters, all types of singers, dancers, and musicians, and one particularly interesting combination of flautist (playing Disney songs, no less) and giant bubble blower. One busker on an electric guitar in New Zealand popped up in a couple different cities I was staying in, and even rode the same bus as me from Dunedin to Queenstown (he was also talented enough that I took note: facebook/joje87, but his page is gone now).
In a blog article for the Project for Public Spaces, Nick Broad outlines his Top Ten Best Busking Spots in the World. He starts out:
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.
One of my favorite observations in his travels was about Mariachis on the canals in Mexico City. Of the crowd he says: “People on boats. Most of them tourists. Some of them drunk."
The only hot spot where Broad and I overlap is New York City, and while I do have memories of those subway hip hop dancers, buskers in general seemed fairly contained. In his description he notes, “Although many of the cops would disagree, it is legal to play music on the streets of New York.” And this is a common theme: buskers vs. law enforcement. It’s a feud that’s ages old – minstrels in the middle ages were considered nothing more than vagrants and looked upon as a nuisance. Both buskers and law enforcement have obviously evolved since then, but the relationship hasn’t changed much.
In the short documentary “We Took the Streets” (definitely worth 20 minutes of your time) famous English Hang drummer, Daniel Waples, says that if he tried to play on the streets in London, he’d be fined repeatedly and arrested if he didn’t stop playing. Two members of the Danish group The Bottle Boys recount how police in Barcelona confiscated their instruments (beer bottles) and threatened to fine them. They simply went out that night and made replacement instruments (“We just went out and bought, like, 55 beers and drank it…That was quite a hard night but we got through it.” They explain, laughing) and played again the next day.
In my own city of Portland, Oregon, the laws are very relaxed for street performers, and the only technical violation is the noise ordinance. Other than that, there is a Street Musician Agreement, but breaking a rule doesn’t constitute a violation of the law. Trust me, if it did I’d have kindly requested the regular morning bagpiper to be relocated away from the building where I work. Laws vary from city to city and country to country, but if Broad’s Top Ten list makes anything clear, busking is an entertaining and internationally lucrative trade.
Every day that the weather is at least decent I eat my lunch at Director Park in downtown Portland. It’s a lovely square with a fountain, cafe, and “big chess” board. Right now it’s summertime so it’s also a hotspot for buskers. The two regulars are a saxophonist and a violinist, each politely staggering the days they hold the space with their music. Despite the increase of tourism in Portland, they never seem to draw the kinds of crowds that I’ve seen elsewhere. No circles of passersby pausing with cameras in hand. And I’ve never seen anything so bold as a Michael Jackson impersonator or acrobats taking over close-by Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Regardless, it’s lovely to sit and eat and recognize a particular Chopin Nocturne being played on the violin, or hear The Pink Panther on sax drifting in the background. It always adds a bit of whimsy to my day, taking me back to many times wandering the streets abroad on a budget, random street performers adding to the entertainment the world always has on offer.