By Lauren Ziegler
Wild-eyed, jungle-haired. The old man looked possessed. A manic drummer on the corner of East 54th and 2nd Ave in Manhattan, playing – or rather, terrorising – pots and pans, trash cans. What an amazing ruckus. He was so angry. Close to the world-famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) another vivacious work of art was taking place on the street. People were stopping, turning and filming on their phones. Within half an hour, the worn out, dirty grey fedora sitting upside down in front of him was filling fast with notes and change.
Busking is an old practice. It’s what musicians love to do and it provides a daily soundtrack for thousands of commuters around the world. However, until now no-one has tried to professionally document these musicians by recording them, or adding them to an online video database with high quality equipment and dedication.
One of the crowd watching the drummer was Australian cameraman Josh Harper, who has travelled more in his 24 years than most people have in their lifetimes. Born in Wagga Wagga, he grew up in Sydney and has lived in London and New York. A classically trained pianist and cameraman, he not only got a feel for the music of the bars and clubs around the world, but that of the streets.
He first got the idea to record street musicians in Brooklyn, and he’s been working hard on the project, Downtown Tracks, ever since. New York, in particular, is known for its many talented street musicians, many of whom are professionals, and others who simply love to play.
“I realised that nobody had gone around with good quality cameras and audio gear and recorded this stuff. And that’s where the idea came from.” Inspired by the raw talent of buskers, Josh’s aim is to share their stories and their sounds.
Essentially, Downtown Tracks is a database for street musicians. Interviews and recordings of talented buskers will be featured on the website. It will be updated weekly, and each artist will have links to their websites, YouTube, Facebook and contact details.
In the same way that a great track heard on the radio, or a band at the local pub can be found later on the Internet, so it will be for buskers. Fans can track buskers’ movements – be it making a new recording, taking part in a gig at a bar, or performing on a particular street corner.
The first busker filmed was Morgan Kane, a rugged 20-something from Virginia, who came with a banjo, a tambourine tied around his foot and a suitcase that he- used as a drum. Working at Bedford Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, Josh and two others filmed for two hours. Despite the nerves, the bustle of the subway and that it happened to be St Patricks Day, it couldn’t have gone better. People stopped to ask about it, danced to the music, wanted to be a part of it. “We realised we were onto something here. The people were really interested. We wished we’d had flyers to hand out,” Josh says.
Moving the project from New York to Sydney wasn’t easy. “In New York, you’ve got world class talent playing at every stop in every subway station. Here, they’re much fewer and farther between.”
Yet the talent has been found, and their stories are ready to be shared. Directing and editing each video himself and impressing musicians with his own passion and perseverance, Josh has made many friends within the busking scene already. He’s also decided to keep money out of it – there is no payment for filming, or being filmed.
This bold choice has obvious repercussions, but the decision has allowed the budding network to remain unencumbered by the demanding business side of music publication and recording.
Busking is an integral part of the music scene. Many see it as a great tool, teaching musicians how to shape their songs. When playing in a train station or street corner, there is an urgency to grab the passerby’s attention since there is little time to draw them in.
“I’d say our sound is directly attributed to busking,” says Jason Contos, lead guitarist in Bondi-based flamenco-inspired trio, Kallidad. “You’ve gotta find a way to stop them. You’ve got about 15 seconds before they’re on the next block. Everything is short and sharp, it’s fast and rhythmic. Our songs have been formed on the street.”
Tomi Grey, singer and drummer of blues-rock outfit Bonez, expressed shared similar sentiments. “It’s a big part of where our style on stage came from. We get the crowd up on stage, talk to them, because we started off having to do that with complete strangers.”
Because of this, musicians who began on the streets often have a unique sound and stage persona. It’s an exciting aspect of the music scene. When these bands are taken from the street to the stage, the raw energy is still there.
“Some really great players are out there who deserve a spotlight like this,” says Tomi Grey.
Downtown Tracks aims to eventually go global, filming and documenting street performers around the world. Josh has filmed in Melbourne as well as Sydney and New York, and the online network is already beginning to grow. The soundtrack of the streets of the world will one day be accessible online, everywhere.