Sunday, March 9, 2014
The brick sidewalks of Portland's Old Port are a pitch-perfect stage for enterprising street musicians – also known as buskers. And the musicians who entertain for smiles and tips cover a broad range of sounds and styles, from hard rock to bluegrass to the rhythm of an African hand drum.
Said Anwar Cato-King is a musician with many names.
When he is singing in either of his two bands, he might go by Brother Nature or SkyWizard. When he’s playing his drum on a sunny day on Commercial Street or as the bars let out on Fore Street, he goes by just plain Said.
Cato-King plays the djembe, an hourglass-shaped African hand drum with a wood base. Although some djembes are covered with hide or skin and secured with rope, Cato-King’s is covered with a synthetic skin and came to him from a friend.
“He was leaving town and kind of doing his thing, living out of a van at the time,” the 24-year-old said of the drum’s former owner. “He gave me a few books and a blanket and this djembe. He said, ‘I know you’ll make something happen with this.’”
Cato-King said he does his best to earn tips, but mostly uses the drum to make music so the people passing him by have a good time.
“Sometimes you get a head nod, and hopefully people are appreciating it,” he said. “It’s been fun and it helps me buy snacks and whatnot. It helps me practice as well.”
Colin Malakie became fascinated with the khaen (pronounced ‘can’) after seeing one in a shop in Blue Hill ten years ago.
The instrument, which is a free reed instrument made up of bamboo pipes of varying lengths, is akin to the harmonica and accordion and has origins in southeast Asia. Because of his Irish roots though, Malakie said that to him, the Khaen seemed to suggest Celtic music when he heard it. “I thought it sounded like a cross between a concertina and a bagpipe,” he says.
Throughout this summer, Malakie has been playing original works on the odd-looking instrument outside the Thomas Block building on Commercial Street. “The sound here, of the stones... it’s like a miniature amphitheater,” he says. “It really helps with the instrument from what I hear.”
Malakie says a lot of passerby stop to ask him about the instrument. “It’s an unusual thing and it’s something that a lot of people have never seen. I myself was fascinated so it doesn’t surprise me that there is that kind of question and excitement about what this is,” he says.
Malakie plays at the Thomas block building about three times a week and has been continuing to develop his original compositions over the course of the summer. “It also acts as a part time job for me and incorporates practice with an OK income,” he says.
Accompanying Myron Samuels at the Wednesday farmers market most weeks is the 34-year-old Samuel James.
Portland’s own blues guitarist and vocalist also plays the piano, harmonica, banjo and kazoo. While busking, though, he usually sticks to his National slide guitar.
“Yeah it’s hard to carry that piano around, so I mostly just bring my guitar to play in the street,” James said.
James has been playing guitar and busking for about 10 years, he said. When not playing the farmer’s market circuit, he’s on tour or working on producing albums. He also has a day job at a video store.
“I work at Videoport less than I play music, so I think people know me more for my music than for my video renting,” James said, smiling.
He said he likes busking for its unpredictability.
“This can be the roughest crowd and it can be the best crowd,” James said. “I can be playing right here and one guy might come by and tell me something terrible to do to my mother or he might put money in my case. I think as long as the money is coming in, you’re doing it right, and if more insults about your mother are coming in, it might be time to weigh what you’re doing.”
Rick Marr said he is one of Portland’s few full-time buskers.
During a break from playing his guitar and singing in the Old Port recently, Marr said the scene has changed since he began playing his music here six days a week in 1996.
“The people with the PA system have evolved into flame-chuckers and fancy-ball-of-fire type stuff that the kids do. And the music has evolved into banjos and ‘Ya-ta-ta-ta-da!,’” said the 42-year-old Westbrook resident, imitating a folk singer. “Kind of a Motownish sound, or a Boxcar Willie kind of sound. It’s evolved into younger players that play a more old-fashioned sound.”
Marr typically sticks to metal and rock, sometimes throwing in some Reggae or Flamenco chords that he has picked up. Marr and his well-worn acoustic Yamaha guitar, which he calls Nikki, are usually on Exchange Street sidewalks in the summer playing for tips that Marr says he is savings for a new instrument.
“The goal now is buying a late ‘80s black Charvel (guitar) that I got on layaway.... I’m about $160 into paying it off,” Marr said.
The amount he makes varies per day, but once winter hits, Marr said, it isn’t worth the effort to play out on the streets anymore.
“(I play until) six inches of snow rise above my sneaker,” he said.
Three 20-something Portland residents make up the old-time bluegrass band Tumbling Bones. And when they busk, it turns into an unprecictable spectacle.
Jake Hoffman, 28, might strum the banjo furiously while Kyle Morgan, 24, picks a melody out on the guitar. The other guitarist, Peter Winne, 28, might not be playing anything at all, choosing to do an impromptu jig in bare feet and suspenders. Or they might all three put down the instruments and harmonize acapella instead.
Hoffman and Winne were placed together randomly as freshmen roommates at Vassar College. Morgan joined the band earlier this year.
When the band members aren’t touring Ireland or preparing for their August 30 show at One Longfellow Square, they said, they like to busk to see the reaction to their Appalachian-area-inspired music.
“When we’re playing on the street, in some ways, it’s a pure cause-and-effect relationship, because if people stop to listen, that means they like what they hear,” Winne said. “You’re directly affecting their day in some sort of way, and we hope it creates some sense of community, because you can bring in a circle of people around you.”
Myron Samuels and his one-man-band act are staples in Monument Square each Wednesday during the weekly farmers market.
Samuels, who sometimes goes by Bawlmer Slim as a throwback to his roots in Baltimore, Md., plays a harmonica, strikes a tambourine against the sidewalk with one foot and keeps the beat with a tap shoe on the other foot.
On top of it all, the fedora’d 59-year-old adds his twangy voice to the mix, singing covers of blues songs with added lyrics that reflects his surroundings.
“Blues in particular, is all about that call and response sort of music,” Samuels said. Sometimes he will sing about what’s on his mind or what someone walking by has just bought from a farmer.
“If I can get people to get in a rhythm as they’re walking by or I can put a smile on their face and interact with them, then I’ve done my job.” Often, Samuels will play alongside musician Samuel James, with his bluesy guitar and voice. Other times, it’s just Samuels sitting and playing lively blues music for the passerby, with harmonicas strung across his chest like ammunition.
“Blues music is just as much, if not more, about being happy and about forgetting,” Samuels said.