Urban bards

The summer sidewalk subculture that enlivens the city all year round
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 1, 2007

And I’ll play if you have some money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But that one-man band by the quick lunch stand
He was just playin’ real good for free

Nobody, I say nobody, nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew they had never seen him on their TV screen
So they passed his music by.

— Joni Mitchell

“Come down to Exchange Street,” the voice-mail message intones. “You’ll find us. We’ll sound like Kenny G on acid.” And while Kenny G on anything isn’t really my thing, I was intrigued.

I found Cornell Welch and Jason Giacomazzo at the corner of Exchange and Spring streets, across from Tommy’s Park. Forty-year-old Welch, who sports a ponytail and has the physique of a Lord of the Rings warrior (human, not hobbit), was sitting on an upside-down milk crate, keeping beat on a Middle Eastern drum called a doumbek. He was the acid of the pair. Boyish Giacomazzo — this duo’s Kenny G — stood nearby with both an alto and a soprano saxophone around his neck. Between them were Giacomazzo’s boom-box, and a small gold pot with a few dollar bills already nestled inside. As they played — both wearing shades, both with fingers flying — they elicited smiles, stares, and a handful of monetary gifts from passers-by.

I’d say they sounded more like Kenny G after a few bong hits — mellow, with somewhere to go, but no need to rush.

Summer in the Old Port is a great place for street musicians, also known as “buskers” (from the Spanish word buscar, which means “to search,” i.e. for fame, and cash). And likewise, street musicians are great for Portland.

The city transforms during summer months, and musicians both benefit from and contribute to that change. From May through September, Portland is balmy and laid-back, full of tourists and farmers’-market shoppers. As their fingers thaw, musicians emerge from hibernation (most live in Portland year-round, but don’t play during the finger-numbing cold months); simultaneously, colorful sidewalks surface from a bleak winter cityscape. The brick and cobblestone streets, complete with calling seagulls and the smell of the ocean, make a charming backdrop for the busker who performs with his instrument and few accoutrements. (All this isn’t to say that Portland is devoid of street musicians during the winter months – the lively Half Moon Jug Band practices an early form of busking – wassailing – when it treats the city to raucous Christmas carols on Exchange Street each year.)

For better or worse, modern-day minstrels become and create part of the landscape; they provide a soundtrack for the city, and become familiar fixtures for locals and merchants. They influence the city in intangible, deeper ways too; the present of street musicians is a “sign of creativity, but then it’s also something that would be attractive to members of the creative economy,” says Todd Gabe, an economics professor at the University of Maine. The creative economy, or “creative class,” a term coined by author and researcher Richard Florida, refers to people who work in a range of fields, from engineering to theater. Buskers appeal to these people who create for a living, Gabe says. “The economic impact would be somewhat indirect, in terms of making it a more attractive place to live.”

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