The shy Romanian, the would-be|rock star, the student and the old pro ... all earning a living busking in the city
Jamie McDowell arms himself with pocketfuls of loose change and heads out to meet Belfast’s best-known buskers
They are people we pass every day in the street, often not even giving them so much as a second glance, never mind the loose change in our pockets.
And yet somehow they have become indelibly imprinted on the cityscape and in our heads. We’d miss the buskers if they were no longer there. The Romanian with the strange looking instrument who brings the raucous air of another time, another place to downtown Belfast. The professional busker who does it for a living. The young graduates who cannot get a summer job so literally sing for their supper. The good weather brings them onto the streets, giving Belfast its own soundtrack, reverberating from the cobbled walkways of the Cathedral Quarter, all along the narrow passages of The Entries and round by the bustling hub of Cornmarket. There is always someone there, in the background, almost invisible, singing a song, an upturned cap or empty violin case on the ground in front of him.
Of course, as Belfast has changed over the years, so has busking. The city has become increasingly multicultural — and with it, so have the music and instruments employed by street performers. In Cornmarket, at the top of Ann Street, Robbie Miak, from Romania, plays his accordion. In front of him, his jacket is strewn on the ground, with a few copper and silver coins on top.
“I've been playing my accordion here for two years,” he says, continuing to whistle his previous number in between words. “It's nice in this area because a lot of people, and the other buskers, sometimes stop to say hello.”
Robbie speaks in broken English, but it's enough to get by. He continues: “This is my main job. The money I make here isn't very good but it's a lot compared to what you earn in Romania. I like playing music, so it's a good way to make money. I don't always stay here. Sometimes I move about this area, it just depends.”
Robbie laughs and explains why he plays the music so close to his heart: “I always play traditional Romanian music. I think it makes other Romanians here feel a little bit more at home.”
Not far away from Robbie, at the Donegall Place end of Castle Lane, Chris Henry (18), from Belfast, is strumming on his guitar to a Foo Fighters number. “The first time I ever tried busking, I came into the city centre, played one song and left because I was so nervous,” he says. “But I don't get nervy any more at all.
“Sometimes you get the odd person walking past who says something bad or sneery, but they're always just hoods or kids. Lots of people come over and say that they like what I'm playing.
“If I hear anything negative I don't mind because I've been busking for three years now and it doesn't bother me any more.”
Of course, in the current econmic climate many people have been made unemployed and subsequently find themselves unable to find similar work elsewhere. Others simply cannot find their first job. After Chris finished school, the workplace drought didn't leave him with many options in terms of making money in the months after school ended and university begins.
He explains: “The money I make here is going towards a ticket for Oxegen. I've been coming here every day to build up some cash. It's even better if it rains because if people see you playing your guitar in the soaking wet they feel sorry for you. I'm going to university next year, so I'll do whatever I can to get by.
“The majority of my mates play guitar, but some of them have normal jobs and are a bit envious of how I make my money.”
According to Chris, playing in the street is a good way to get spotted too. “I've had a few people come up to me and ask me to play in bars or clubs. I've ended up playing in Belfast bars such as Auntie Annie's and the Rosetta,” he reveals.
One of the more prominent spots for buskers in the city centre is Pottinger's Entry. The narrow arch is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Belfast, and it serves as a busy pedestrian shortcut across town. It’s not just because it offers shelter from the inclement weather that this proves a popular spot for the city’s street entertainers.
“Buskers like it here because of the sound you get in the arch,” explains Davy McCabe (18), from Belfast. Davy plays a tune by The Smiths, and his strong, distinctive voice comes as a surprise. There's no doubt he can play guitar, but Davy's an impressive singer, too.
“I've been busking for one year,” he adds, “and I do it mainly just for the fun of it, but it's an opportunity to earn a few quid at the same time. Most of the people who come up and talk to me like my music, and sometimes they ask for requests. On average, I'd earn about £30 or £40 on a good day. Saturday is the best day for it, and last Saturday I got £40.”
Davy also says playing in public is a good way to road-test his own material. “I mainly play music by bands that I like. My favourite band is U2, though I also like The Smiths and Queen. I'll play my own stuff from time to time. It's a great feeling when you get a good reception. Sometimes, when I'm busking, I'll play something different and try to improvise a bit, and if it's good, I'll write it down when I get home.
“I get a bit of banter from time to time off passers-by, but it's never vicious or anything.”
On Donegall Place, one of the more familiar faces among the buskers is playing his heart out.
This elderly Romanian man always catches the eye because of the odd-shaped instrument he is playing: it looks like a violin with a trumpet attached to it.
He speaks minimal English, though his smiling, cheerful demeanour makes him instantly approachable. And commerce is all around us — as we are struggling to understand each other, a Romanian woman who speaks a little English comes along. She is able to translate, though won’t give the man's name, and then proceeds to charge around £1 per word for her effort.
She tells us that the man's instrument is called a trumpeta. He points to a conical chrome metal part on the side and says: “Gramophone.” Through hand signals and various facial expressions we manage to work out that the instrument is a traditional one, and not something he put together himself.
We try to find out some more of this man’s backstory, but the facts prove elusive. All we can establish is that he came to Northern Ireland a few years ago. It would appear that he struggled to find work — the Romanian woman explains that he didn't have a job, then charges us £1.70 for this information.
“He has nothing, he has nothing,” our interpreter keeps telling us, but at this point given her own fee, I’m getting to that position myself. Once she sees that I cannot pay any more, she moves away. And time is clearly money: our mysterious friend takes up his tune again, making it clear he needs to get back to business.
Conor Scott must be one of the youngest buskers in Belfast at 15. “I've only been busking for a few months now,” he explains. It was a surprise to hear that Conor is so young, as he spoke with great confidence and character.
“I know of some people who get the odd slagging by people passing by. I don't really care though. I love my music,” he says. “This is my equivalent of a summer job. Normally, I'd get about £25 after playing for a few hours. It can be very profitable. I just play when I can. It rained yesterday though, so I gave it a miss.
“I play some of my own stuff from time to time. Last Thursday a girl came up to me and asked if I could play at the Youth Action Centre, which was good. I've just finished fourth year at St Malachy's College. It specialises in music, so that helped me a lot.”
Conor explains how his parents react to him playing on the street. “My mum's my mum so of course she worries about me, but my dad works just around the corner so she knows that he's nearby if anything goes wrong.”
He also explains how there's an unwritten rule about busking turf — a buskers’ code — about playing near each other. “If you see a guy in a good spot on his own, you just move on.
“There are plenty of places to play anyway. You don't need a licence to play or anything. I've heard some other buskers say that shop owners have come out and asked them to go away, but we don't have to by law.”
In the open square between Bank Street and Chapel Lane, Mike ‘the Busker' (56) strikes a
chord. He's a seasoned performer and his experience shows in both his confidence and the quality of his music.
“I've been busking in Belfast for around 12 years now,” he says. “I'm originally from Wales but I live here now. Busking is what I do and I enjoy it. You couldn't do it if you didn't enjoy it.”
Though many buskers move around, Mike is happy with his spot in the square. “I just stick around here. This is my sort of spot — it's close to the pub.”
His backdrop of St Mary's Church and the echoing walls of the square coupled with the clinking of pint glasses in the background provides a perfect platform for Mike.
“I play a lot of country music and a lot of my own stuff. I get loads of banter and the odd bit of hassle, but you learn to take the hassle. You get some idiots coming along sometimes.
“Years ago, kids used to run and snatch money from my guitar case on the ground. Now they've grown up, and I recognise them out with their own kids. It's funny when I see them giving their kids money to put in my case.”