The buskers are back, with the sounds of summer
Being ignored is part of the street – I know that from personal experience. When I started learning the accordion, I started playing on the streets outside farmers markets as soon as I could extract some tunes from the “Amelie” soundtrack. Eleven years later, every time I gamble on the street, I never know if the next hour will bring me $2, $20, or $200. Still, there are many ways to stand out, and it helps to find a niche.
The saxophonist from St. John
You hear Jonte Samuel before you see him. Through the bustle of an early summer day near the New England Aquarium – idling buses, screaming children, screeching boat horns – a catchy tune played on a tenor saxophone floats above the harbor. Follow the sound, and here is Samuel, his instrument flashing in the sun as a billboard at his feet announces his musical offerings. “I play 173 national anthems,” reads amid taped cutouts of national flags.
Central Wharf is a favorite spot for Samuel due to the heavy foot traffic of the harbor promenade, aquarium, boat tours and other nearby attractions. During the summer, the aquarium draws more than 5,000 visitors a day, more than the entire population of its home island of St. John, according to the 2020 census, the smallest of the US Virgin Islands. Samuel moved here in 2010 to study jazz saxophone at Berklee College of Music, and while he still performs jazz gigs occasionally, he plays almost every day when the weather permits.
The hymns gimmick happened almost by accident, said Samuel as he took a break on a sunny weekday, drinking some water. He used to sit outside the TD Garden when the shows ended, and he would play the greatest hits of whoever was performing that night. So when Boston hosted the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in 2016, it decided to learn the national anthems from the competitors.
Since then, his anthems have been filmed and gone viral in Thailand, Mexico and Ukraine. His repertoire also includes anime and video game songs, as well as pop and folk songs from several countries. He says he saw people from all over the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East smile as they heard “Kâtibim,” a folk tune of likely Turkish origin that took root wherever it landed.
He feels he probably plays more Arabic songs than anything else – but, he admits, he’s not too confident to play them, as the tuning system (which includes quarter tones) differs from this what he is used to. “I feel a little bad sometimes, but people really appreciate that!” Samuel said.
His break ended abruptly when he noticed staff setting up a booth to sell photographs to people on a whale-watching boat. By the time the boat docked, he was already playing. “La Vie en Rose” floated from its saxophone bell as whale watchers landed, and tourists and locals called out to each other in a medley of languages. Several people waved their phones to film Samuel; a few dropped money in his bucket.
“Where do you come from?” he shouted to a passing family. Russia, said one, and he immediately released a mix of “Kalinka” and “Korobeiniki”, which is known in the rest of the world as the theme “Tetris”. No answer.
Unfazed, he shifted gears to a familiar, heart-pounding melody – The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive.”
The man with the hurdy-gurdy
Donald Heller’s hurdy-gurdy might be the quintessential street performer’s instrument, given its long associations with traveling musicians in Europe. “I wanted to be a traveling musician,” he said on a recent afternoon on FaceTime from Portugal. “I liked medieval music, so I knew the hurdy-gurdy. Then I heard one and said, “This is for me!”
The hurdy-gurdy, which has a history of over 1,000 years, produces its distinctive reed hum with a crank wheel that rubs against multiple strings. It requires frequent adjustment and maintenance; dust and heat are not his friends. “The street is tough for hurdy-gurdies,” Heller said.
Lately, he’s been frustrated that there are fewer park benches than there were when he moved to Boston 12 years ago (he’s been a busker for over 45 years in total). He says good bus spots – busy but not noisy, where people can linger to listen – have become harder to find.
He noticed a “much greater diversity” of street musicians in Europe, including on the trip to Portugal. “There are hundreds of small towns where you can play on the street,” he said, “and I’m not just saying it’s allowed. I say that there are enough people to come and listen to you. The cities of Porto and Lisbon are full of squares and viewpoints, he noted, where a busker can stand and play against the backdrop of rivers, hills and castles.
Heller, who often walks with his wire-haired dachshund, Django, can be found at various locations downtown during the warmer months. He used to play at MBTA stations but no longer does because train noise and air quality bothered him. “I would come home and blow my nose, and it would be all black,” he said.
The blues violinist who loves the T
Everytime Ilana Katz Katz (her middle name and last name are the same) carries her gear from her Back Bay home, she says “a little prayer, to ask that I reach who I’m supposed to reach that day”, said Katz, a blues and fiddler and singer-songwriter from Appalachia native to the Midwest. “I can tell when someone is really excited about what I’m doing. …Even though they’re not coming towards me, I can see a little foot tapping.
Unlike Heller, Katz loves the T and can’t wait to get back to his usual spot at Park Street Station, once the MBTA resumes issuing artist licenses after shutting down during the pandemic. (Anyone can play above ground without a license in Boston, but the MBTA requires an annual license.)
“Because people are waiting on a platform, it’s a different kind of opportunity to connect with people,” Katz said. “The first time I went to play on the subway, I felt like that was an important goal for me. For some reason, I seem to reach people in a different way when I play on the MBTA. For the moment she settles in bustling above-ground places like Newbury Street.
She likes anonymity. “Nobody knows who I am or what I did or didn’t do,” she said. “They react to the music I play.”
Recently, she participated in a festival of street artists organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Staff were on hand to help the performers which made for a weird experience. “I am very independent. I’ve been like this for a long time,” Katz said. “I’m not used to someone helping me!”