Along with cash for its performers, the enjoyment and expectations of audiences, the Halifax International Busker Festival raises a perennial question: Who is a busker?
For Kim Hendrickson, president of ESP Productions, the company that puts on the festival, a busker performs a “circle show. Then they pass a hat,” she says on the phone, away from the hustle and bustle. But, she goes on to explain, a performer must possess more than will and even skill. For one, an act or performance is “scripted” and rehearsed, a point she makes a few times during discussion. “There has to be a show to it,” Hendrickson says. “Just because someone has skill doesn’t mean they can put on a show.”
Other people busk and understand busking, in an informal, unofficial way, as a matter of travelling and jobbing and not performing as part of a sanctioned schedule.
“Busking is selling your art through performance on the street,” says Victor McLean, an Ottawa native who arrived last week to spend some time in Halifax. “It’s street-level.” He’s just packing up his guitar after finishing another “shift” outside the Halifax Ferry Terminal.
“I write folky and jazzy stuff. It’s all clean. I don’t believe in cursing in music,” explains McLean, adding with a mix of pride and surprise at himself: “I just wrote a folk song in English and French.” The 28-year-old hitchhiked here. Crossing Quebec especially influenced him. “I met all these really great francophone people,” says McLean. “All the people I met I immortalized in a song.”
He didn’t know the Busker festival was going on before he arrived, but he’s enjoying the atmosphere and the friendly support he’d received by the mobile masses. “I don’t have a job. I wanted to live off busking for the summer. I’m a registered chef: I don’t need to do this,” says McLean, who graduated from Niagara College. “I can just show my papers and my resume and can probably be working in a kitchen again in a day.”
As a busker, McLean believes each gig is a rehearsal for the next one. He got into busking as an act of “tough love.” After starting to play stages back in the nation’s capital, an acute anxiety kept him from playing. “I started busking and cured myself of stage fright,” he says, smiling. Busking provided the necessary nerve tonic, but also needed travel funds. McLean came to Halifax to see the Atlantic Ocean, explore the Ovens and visit Oak Island.
Festival performers include seven acts from Australia (the largest contingent of the 19 on the slate), have their return flights and hotel accommodations in Halifax paid for thanks to event sponsors, writes ESP event manager Christina Edwards.