To the beat: street musicians in London

man in string vest playing guitar

By Ilse Blanquet-Chavero

What makes London stand out as an uplifted and eventful place? Any cosmopolitan town can be distinctive by the architecture, the culture, the touristic eccentric spots but nothing can make a city more alive than its people. Virginia Woolf used to say that “the streets of London have their map, but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”. Unmistakably, the soul and the heart of “The Great Wen” can be found around Central London, a hideaway or at any avenue.

Over the years the streets of the uncanny city have become the set for numerous musicians and performers that extol the beauty of the metropolis with their melodies and songs. The busking lifestyle can be experienced from contrasting standpoints; there are some who found a thrill as street musicians and some others who commit into this way of living to follow a dream. Undeniably the street music scene, which in the majority are still men, furbishes the concrete jungle of London. Just like Woolf would state: “Who are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”.

Outside of the coffee shop Joe and the Juice at Portobello Road, a tall young man sings Stand By Me with his acoustic guitar. His unique voice and his frisky smile are enough to catch the attention of the people. Most of the sightseers stop their promenade just to record him with their phones; even some girls may flirt around while they pass in the middle of his performance.

a busker with their dog and lots of instruments and signs

A busker and their dog [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

On the box where he keeps his microphone and his cube amplifier, there is a paper with a handwritten name: @danimazz6. No one has a clue that the man dressed in black with a brown coat and a charming vibe took a flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, last March in search of adventure and good times.

Dani Mazzucchelli has been playing at Portobello Road for almost two months. He shares his music around this neighbourhood specifically because he finds charm in the thriving market, the pastel-coloured houses and the antique shops of Notting Hill; the quiet streets from the borough have delighted him.

When it comes to a selected setlist, he enjoys performing everything from Bill Withers to Justin Bieber tunes, all the more during the weekends when the market is full of visitors: “I have played once at the busy Oxford Street but I definitely love Portobello and Notting Hill because of the people that come around, the environment and the streets are great for the sound”.

Although he holds a BA in business, he found pleasure in playing with his acoustic guitar for three hours a day on the road and making people have a good time. When You Say Nothing At All or Love Yourself are some of the most popular songs that make the throng of tourist’s mouth along as soon as they listen to him.

man standing up busking

Busking [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

Sometimes when he spots a Latin or Hispanic group; he rocks to the rhythm of La Flaca or Querido Tommy – his favourite song – which captivates his audience immediately. Yet, he has been surprised by some onlookers’ reactions:

“One of the things I’ve learned so far from playing on the streets is that sometimes we can have strong preconceived notions. People who look wealthy, you would think they would give you some hard cash but it’s the other way around. I found that homeless people stop to listen to my music and share with me some of the coins they have. I think that is probably because they understand what is like to be standing in the middle of the way, I don’t know, I haven’t decoded the main reasons yet but it’s outstanding how these things can be understood when you have prejudices.”

London represents for him the place where he is only playing for fun while he is travelling around Europe. He definitely hasn’t foresighted to be a street performer; in fact, this is the first time he is doing casual street gigs far away from his hometown. This year, he plans to continue his journey to Barcelona, Spain, where he intends to wind down. Being a superstar of Portobello Road will just be a ‘sweet memory’, as he would describe it, of the busker life in the pulsating city.

“I’m not doing this for anything but pleasure. This is the first time I dared to play on the streets. I love to perform and I love music but that’s all. When I get back to my home, Argentina, I’m taking all these memories with me as a great experience of working in a different way. Despite the fact that it’s hard some days to be standing for hours in the middle of the rain, or when it’s too hot; it’s actually very nice to see people having a great time while I’m singing. This has been really fun!”.

black and white picture of man busking in Piccadilly circus

Busking in Piccadilly Circus [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

Albeit London can be a capital of adventure to play in the middle of audiences just for distraction, for others like Caleb Woodgate, the street performance is the promise of a jumping-off notch to fame. Busking life is a way to survive every day. In the meantime, he is on the search for his fortune as an artist. Caleb, who is 22 years old, left his house at the beginning of this year and decided to start a quest alongside his seven-year-old best friend, his dog Ralph.

“Me and my dog have been a team since my mum rescued him from the streets. She was looking to rehome him but I said ‘You know what? I’m going to travel with Ralph’”.

Despite being young, the way he speaks, expresses himself and even more the way he is dressed, makes Caleb look like a polite, mature man. Caleb can easily stand out by his 1920s fashion style with his brown newsboy hat, a brown jacket that covers a ripped t-shirt with suspenders, his olive trousers and a pair of worn out brown boots. Yet his way of looking with his green eyes disclose a noble, tender and kind personality. Even when he smokes every once in a while in between songs, he resembles a musician from past decades singing amidst the chaos of Oxford Street.

A bad relationship with his mother, a lack of sense of belonging and the hunger to leave a trace in music were the main reasons why Caleb chose one day to migrate from Essex to the city. On the move, he came across Dobby Daswick who joined Caleb and Ralph in this sojourn. Recalling Whitman, who acclaimed that the future is no more uncertain than the present, Caleb and Dobby live each day under the motto of enjoying the moment and whatever may come onwards their wanderlust.

“I’m just here to travel and see the music scene in London. We came to see what we can do here. London is busier and there’s more money in here – it’s an iconic place. We want to enjoy the moment and to travel around for a while and get ourselves a name here. The street is the place to get yourself known, you get a bigger audience and out here you can get crowds”.

zoom in of man playing guitar

Close-up of guitar playing [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

Diversely from most of the buskers in London, Caleb enjoys serenading people with more ‘classic pieces’ from ‘the good old days’ like Neil Young and Tom Petty… Meantime, Dobby sits quietly by his side covered with a blanket and just watches the people passing by.

Although his past is a mystery since he doesn’t talk to people, Dobby’s gaze reflects nostalgia or melancholy for something or someone. Perhaps not even Caleb may know with certainty who is his young fellow, who only kindly nods his head or bows to thank people when they give them money or when they approach pet, Ralph.

After they arrived in April to the city, they have been living unrooted with no strings attached to anything while finding a home in different spots during the nights and singing for nine hours during the day. They travel with nothing but a green old luggage bag and Caleb’s guitar. Crashing on the streets has made them appreciate what the city is like. The grime in their hands and their snatched clothes reveal they have been sleeping outdoors for a long time.

Some days they can get enough money to carry on for the day from playing on the streets, sometimes they just have to pull through the circumstances. In view of their experience, Caleb describes London as ‘busy, inspirational and hardcore’: “We live outside so we get a good taste of what the city is like. Generally, there’s always a good vibe but as Clint Eastwood would say there’s the good, the bad and the ugly from this lifestyle. My piano was stolen, which I used to charge my phone, I got punched in the face during the night and my nose was broken. We do the best we can every day and we try to enjoy everything. Our main focus is music and travel so we’re just here trying”.

While they experience in their everyday life non-pleasant episodes, the silver lining of performing on big avenues is the reaction of the people who listen to their music. By this Caleb underlines that buskers are part of the fabric of the city: “Sometimes I can feel a little worthless by just being a guy with a guitar.

Even with big crowds, I feel nervous but the best thing about playing on the streets is the positive feedback from the audience, which is very uplifting to me. Some people come to me and say: ‘Oh man! I work in a really busy office, you’ve made a great impact on my day just by playing’. In response to that, I could say that unquestionably musicians and buskers create a positive impact on the city”.

view of people watching the busker

Spectators [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

Some of the projects Caleb has envisioned for his future are to travel to York soon and to create a YouTube channel called ‘Me, Ralph and this guitar’. In the meantime, he and his comrades continue on their endeavour to inspire anyone that crosses their path: “Never give up! Don’t let anyone bring you down, just do what you feel is right and that’s it. Even my own mum told me that I couldn’t sing and that I couldn’t write songs and things like that, so when people pass and say ‘that sounds great!’, that’s all that matters to me. You will always get the good and the bad but just put yourself out there. Of course, there will be people who will love it and people who won’t but don’t let things bring you down!”.

Piccadilly Circus has become the main stage for a young musician like Agustin Kafka (@agustin.kafka): “Thank you very much guys, cheers – this is my full-time job so any coins or help is appreciated”, he tells his audience at the end of his performances. Agustin is a 23- year-old singer who proudly calls himself a street performer. Although he is from Argentina, people can barely perceive his Latin-American accent when he speaks in English. Agustin graduated from the Abbey Road Institute in London a year and a half ago, and he decided to try the busker life until his career as a singer and producer build up.

“I came to London because this is a powerhouse of music and it’s the best place to be a street musician. Big artists and singers have worked here, including The Beatles, my favourite band ever. After finishing my studies at the Abbey Road Institute, I left my home because I wanted to go big. My goal is to be a producer some day and a professional singer”.

After settling in London, Agustin started immediately playing with his acoustic guitar in the same place every day. He recalls how it was not that hard to initiate himself as a busker due to his devotion to music. He highlights that his desire to share his passion is bigger than any bumps that can come in the way of his dreams: “The first time I performed in the street it was here at Piccadilly. I was a little bit nervous but actually that day it all went very well. Someone gave me £20, which was like a kick of luck on my first day of busking.

After that, everything became easier and I learned to go with the flow. I like to perform here because the audiences that gather are great. I get more exposure as they can share a video or pictures of me on Instagram with their friends and then their friends can see me and so on. I don’t mind people putting a camera in front of me while I’m performing – I’m very used to it and I like it in some way because that means they really enjoy my music”.

His joy is noticeable for anyone from the moment he sets his microphone and the rest of his equipment to start his day. As a tech-savvy busker, he places a little board with his Instagram username, every once in a while, he distributes cards with his contact information and social media and on top of that, and he displays his first album which costs £5.

In fact, his routine involves playing nine hours a day for four or five days a week: “The busker life is not easy; you have to stand many hours no matter what. If it’s cold, if it’s raining or if it’s too hot… you have to carry on with the show, but still, this is my aspiration. I don’t mind the weather or if there are bad days when not many people give me money or stop to listen to my music. I love this way of living because I love music, even when I’m on my days off, I still play in my room, so for me, it’s more than just a distraction”.

With songs like Photograph, Thinking Out Loud and Hallelujah, Agustin creates an immediate connection with the crowd and multitude of tourists that gather around to record him on Instagram mainly. Sometimes when the number of listeners is big, he ventures to feature some song he has written like “Cry no more”.

close up of guitar

Guitar [Ilse Blanquet Chavero]

His playlist comprises of tunes from Ed Sheeran to Passenger, which are always welcomed and cheered by the people: “I feel so happy when I sing on the streets and someone comes to me at the end and says ‘Hey, you just made my day with this song, thank you for that’. Sometimes people have cried while I was performing. It’s very fulfilling to know I can make a difference in someone’s life just by doing what I love, which is to sing and to share music”.

His plans are to keep singing on Piccadilly’s streets until he becomes a full-time singer and producer. For now, the busker lifestyle is a stepping stone to blast off his career: “I’d love to play one day at Wembley or Manchester Stadium like Ed Sheeran. It would be really awesome, like a dream come true. Maybe one day I will do it”.

London can be anything but a spiritless city. Beyond its fast-paced life, every corner of its neighbourhoods hides a story ready to be discovered by anyone who is willing to find extraordinary anecdotes of ordinary people like buskers. These street performers animate the complex urban atmosphere with music, it doesn’t matter which instruments they use to perform – with their voices and their sounds they give a special liveliness and enrich the essence of the streets of a big city like London.


Featured image courtesy of Ilse Blanquet-Chavero