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Two buskers in the underworld

December 5, 2007

Tourists with digital cameras glued to their hands arrive to London everyday, thirsty for those by now stereotypical images of the “English way of life”. Westminster Abbey.Click. The Big Ben. Click.The London Eye. Click.Fish and Chips. Click.Even in the Underground, their flashes fall upon the buskers, a lineage of musicians that have unconsciously given the Tube a most peculiar soundtrack over the years. On the eyes of outsiders, busking equals freshness, spontaneity and improvisation. But to what extent? Two Tube musicians talk about their life in the bowels of London.

Raw feelings and a guitar

Shubut Cumbarbatch – pronounced like Shubert the composer, he points out – is playing today in Oxford Circus, in the Central Line corridor. He is a regular in both this station and Charing Cross, where you can find him bewitching his acoustic guitar three days a week. Experience and the advice of a friend busker who introduced him to the business have taught Shubut where and when to go in this hidden city. “Those two stations are the best ones to play, because a lot of people go through them and they have really good acoustics”.

His voice, as black and silky as his shaved head, reaches your thoughts and warms your whole body even before you’ve seen him performing around the corner, tall and imposing.

Standing in the middle of the corridor in a tracksuit while delivering his personal version of “Stand by Me” with his eyes closed, he seems to be at home. After fifteen years of busking, he nearly is.

This Londoner has built a repertoire based on reggae, soul, and folk. “Normally I play the same songs, but it depends on the mood of the moment, and I can change them if I get bored of playing them”. But mostly, his choices are dictated by his public. “If I see that a song works, I repeat it”. And he has to, because busking is how he earns all his money. “It depends a lot on the day, but you can earn as much as £130 in three hours in a really good day”, he admits over the phone.

As free and natural his choice of location might seem, the adhesive on the floor that delimits his stage of sorts tells a different story.

In 2003, London Underground introduced a license scheme. From that point, every busker has had to go through an audition run by a professional music management company. The scheme includes 33 spots – or pitches – in 23 different stations that can be booked in several two-hour slots every fortnight.

Although LU claims the system is a success, with roughly 400 buskers registered every year, some of the musicians have reservations. “Now the system is better”, says Shubut, “but it’s difficult and it’s not fair, because some people use power-dials, machines that can call again and again, so they get the slots first”.

Unaware of the mechanics, most commuters go past him without any visible reaction to his music, especially in the rush-hours. “Every day, there are hundreds or even thousands of people, so you can’t know how they feel”. Even then, some people do smile and sing along Shubut’s voice while others delve into their wallets for a few stray coins.

The atmosphere changes in the evenings and especially in the weekends. “They tend to get more vocal. If they have drunk a bit of alcohol, and they are merry, they are much looser”.

Out of the hundreds of situations he’s been involved in while busking, there’s one that has stuck into his memory. “A couple I didn’t know told a friend that when they were depressed, listening to this busker cheered them up”. That busker was Shubut. “That meant that his songs touched them, and that’s good, because it’s what music is supposed to do”.

A rocker goes mellow

Unknown to Shubut, a very different musician caresses his guitar in the Bakerloo Lines corridor, not far from his pitch. Sitting on his amplifier and tapping his feet on the floor, he combines the chords of his electric guitar to create a soft melody that makes you think of a long journey. But his songs, along with his long curly black hair and his sideburns, insinuate a different kind of style.

“What I really like is heavy rock”, admits Bon Val, as he prefers to be known. And he always tries again and again until he gets what he wants. Since he came from Brasil six years ago, he has been playing in different bands. Now, he is set on creating his own. It’s the strong will hidden behind his shy exterior what has allowed him to survive playing music, both in pubs and in the Tube.

“If you want to play music, or do something related to arts in general, you’ve got to come to London”, he says as if stating an unquestionable truth. “Here you have a thousand of pubs to play, and they are open to everyone. Everyone can find their place in the sand”.

Bon Val has had to adapt his style to find his place as an Underground busker. “When I am down there, I soften it. I play mellow because a lot of different people use the Tube, old people too. It all depends on the public I’ve got”.

That was one of the lessons he learned from a fellow musician, a friend of an old flatmate who taught him the unwritten rules of busking, back in the times when it was an unlicensed – he carefully avoids saying “illegal”- activity.

“Once I even went to court because they wanted me to pay a big fine…for playing music! I appealed and in the end I only paid 20 pounds”, he remembers looking more than a little pleased with himself.

“With the new system, everything is much more peaceful, because before you had to be moving every time the staff came”, he recalls. “Besides, now you’ve got to have a clear criminal record to play, which is good”.

The regulations protect the public from the potentially violent buskers, but who protects them? “I was playing in Piccadilly at night when a man with suit, shirt and tie, in his thirties, just came on to me and kicked my guitar.Things like that make you realize how wrong the first impressions are”.

However, playing in the Tube has rewards that overshadow the darkest moments. “I think I was playing a song by Eric Clapton when a girl started crying and said that the song was her brother’s favorite. She then told me that his brother had died a year before. She was touched by my music, and that’s really special”.

At 28, Bon Val is everything but naïve, as he made clear when he told me he had googled my name before the interview to see if I was really a journalist.

“Everything is a product, and you have to know how to sell it”, he claims speaking as the Graduate in Marketing and Advertisement that he is. Although he fell in love with his guitar when he was only 14, he decided to go to university for his family´s sake.

Beyond his commercial strategies, Bon Val doesn´t forget that “music is expression”, and he knows that expression is not unique. “Music is art, art is taste, and taste is something very personal”.

Despite being in front of hundreds of people every day, the Brasilian doesn´t seem to be very fond of publicity. Apparently, Bon Val loathes being regarded as a curiosity. “Busking is like going to school or going to work, it´s nothing special”. And his face twists into a scowl when he talks about tourists. “I hate it when I’m playing and suddenly a flash blinds me. Some people don´t even ask your permission to take a picture or record your performance. They think that you are the Big Ben”.

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