Meet the buskers
Benito Di Fonzo, Sydney Morning Herald. November 17, 2006
"I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard some witless inebriate yell, 'Get a real job,' from a passing car," Pterodactyl Man says. "Then I'd have $8! A real job?
What are buskers: holograms?"
Ptery has spent a decade dressing as a haiku-sprouting pterodactyl superhero and accompanying himself on a stylophone, a small electronic keyboard. That's when he's not donning a white outfit and grabbing his charango, a South American lute, to become Bi-Polar Bear. "In hot weather you wear the heavy bear suit and in cold you wear the skimpy suit."
Ptery finds it safer to stick to Newtown. "[In Chinatown] I was told to move on because somebody was having spasms in a bar up the road. A man couldn't handle the high-pitched theremin noise I was making."
What is he seeking? "The ultimate approval and a few shiny gold coins to make up for my low wages. I have a real job but it doesn't make enough so I need an unreal job."
Sydney's draconian licensing laws have driven this harp guitarist to the streets. "Here's my problem with Sydney, OK? If a restaurant wants to put on a performance of me, they have to pay thousands of dollars for a licence. It's absolutely ridiculous. I go to restaurants and they go, 'No, we haven't got a performing licence. We'll get in trouble.' And they don't want to get one because it cost them all this money. It leaves me with not many options."
His mission is simple. "Just a way to live.
I've worked in lots of different jobs and done things I absolutely detest. Though I could make more money, you don't have the time, the freedom, to do what you want to do. If you give up some material things, you gain freedom.
You gain time to seek."
For Bharti, busking is part of a larger spiritual "seeking". "Look, mate, I lived in India for eight years. I'm a worshipper of Shiva. In India there's a long tradition of people called sadhus. They're usually wandering mendicants, completely outside of society, beggars. Buddha's last words were, 'Walk on.' I came back here and the only way to do it was to play music. It's a different culture here: if you just begged you'd starve."
Bharti accompanies himself on electric violin, harmonica and bhartiphone, an other-worldly instrument that looks and sounds like the bastard child of a mangrove tree and a cello.
"I started off with nothing and I've got nothing now," says Bharti, who has recorded several albums and has his own website, http://www.indiabharti.com. "I've kept myself independent and just above the poverty level but it's a fairly non-destructive occupation. What else can you do?"
A "Contiki" of tourists has gathered around Ben as he plays didgeridoo against a backing track. "There's about five didgeridoo players," Ben says, wearing Aboriginal dress. "We do two hours each."
Koomurri are by far the most professional outfit at Circular Quay this day. They include dancers and have just returned from South Korea where they defeated 71 other teams of indigenous performers. They even have their own roadie, Mitch, who explains their mission. "We do a whole show to educate people. There's not many places in Sydney where you can see a live Aboriginal cultural show. Here we're able to share Aboriginal culture with more people. We also give a spiel about what people are wearing, use Aboriginal language and explain what words mean."
They've found a way around the much-maligned council rule that buskers can't sell CDs. "Under international human rights law, indigenous people are allowed to promote their culture as they see fit and shouldn't be impeded."
Mitch is a volunteer but the performers share their tips evenly. "It's the way traditionally Aboriginal people look after each other in their families."
If you've seen electronic music outfit Endorphin then you've seen Medel - he's that wacky cat out front dancing in an outfit louder than the music. It's among the many suits he designs for Endorphin and his own human statue act. He has performed as a statue regularly at Circular Quay for the past eight years. His best busking experience was when Carlos Santana and entourage strolled by one day and were so captivated he flung him $100. They chatted afterwards in Spanish. Did he try to get Endorphin a support spot? "I was sort of too star-struck."
Sounds like he missed his big break. However, it's not all corn chips and salsa, as Medel found when "some idiot, a guy with a mullet" pushed him off his platform as a class of terrified primary school kids watched on. Lucky he didn't fall in the harbour. "Or squash one of the little ones. It was a bit scary."
Medel seeks to entertain a wide diversity of people. "I know how to lure them in, give them a little kick-start for about 10 seconds, mouth open, trying to figure out what I am. That's what I get off on."
"It's battle axes, medieval axes, whips and toy koalas." That's McKendry's description of his Darling Harbour act, which he has been perfecting since Brisbane's Expo 88 inspired the then 13-year-old to hit the streets.
What is he seeking? "I love making people laugh and breaking them out of TV. So many people are used to just absorbing entertainment, whereas a street show runs on the energy of the audience - if the audience doesn't clap and cheer, the show doesn't work."
Audience participation works both ways. "I had a gun pulled on me in Kings Cross. There was this stupid guy who didn't like what I was doing. He yelled at me for half an hour. I yelled back at him and then he pulled out a gun and said, 'You shouldn't hassle me because I've got this.' I just went, 'OK, I'll juggle now.'"
His show also saves lives. "I had a lady watch me for two-and-a-half years in the front row, always smiling, never clapping. At the end of that time she gave me a card that explained that she was feeling suicidal one day at Circular Quay and was thinking of throwing herself off the station and looked down and saw me doing the show and came down and watched it."
Did she tip? "Five dollars every show." It's in his interest not to lose her, then? "Oh, yeah ... [but] you give me $5 million and I'll still go out and do it. I'd do it for free."
It's six years since Michael swapped his job as an aged-care nurse for a milk crate, slide guitar and harmonica on Pitt Street mall, and he still gets off on it.
"I get a buzz from the gratification and if people want to throw in some coins, I'll buzz even more."
He takes his run-ins stoically.
"That mob over there," he says, pointing at a fashion store, "if they don't like me they'll turn their music up. I don't mind. I go with the beat and play with it. You get weirdos. I've had people come up and dance round to the music drunk and then they think the money's half theirs. Take a couple of dollars and off you go."
The tattooed guitarist loves his new life.
"I was sick and tired of the endless circle: get up, go to work, come home. I haven't got a boss on me back saying, 'Work faster, work harder, make me richer.' I can just do me own thing."
"There's more to it than just the act," Prest says in a slightly Cockney accent. "There's a whole psychology behind it that is really the art of good street performing."
Prest's "circle act" combines dance, humour and magic.
"I started when I was about 12 years old until about 18. I did corporate work for 15 years and I decided I wanted to do more travel, meet new people, develop new material and there's no better place to do it than on the street."
Does he have run-ins?
"I've had guys go through my box while I'm performing. As we speak I've got a guy who's a bit of a psycho," he says, looking over my shoulder.
I shouldn't turn around?
"I think he's gone now."
Probably gone down to Michael the guitarist.