Thursday, December 12, 2013
BY KAREN ANTONACCI
PORTLAND -- With its shops, galleries and restaurants filling the brick sidewalks with cash-carrying pedestrians, downtown Portland is a popular playground for outgoing musicians in search of an audience -- and, if all goes well, a little cash.
And the musicians who perform in the Old Port are as diverse as the instruments and music they play, from a bluegrass trio to a man who plays an African hand drum to a guitar-playing purist who prefers that old-time rock 'n' roll.
Lugging instruments out to play on street corners and sidewalks, or busking, is a time-honored tradition. And if some dollar bills end up in the guitar case or tip jar, that's just "icing on the cake," said Myron Samuels, who sets out a bag in Monument Square to collect tips because his tiny harmonica case wasn't exactly designed with busking in mind.
Some days are more lucrative than others. A busker can earn $20 or $30 or more after one set or play all day and walk away with $5 or $10. "It varies," said Exchange Street guitarist Rick Marr.
Downtowns such as Portland's offer clear advantages to the busking musician: an audience to provide immediate and unambiguous feedback about their tunes, plus some practice in overcoming stage fright before going on an actual stage. On a good day, maybe they'll earn what djembe player Said Anwar Cato-King calls "a little bit of snack money."
But that's just one side of busking. The other side, the amazing side, is that it can make people stop and listen.
While people often walk right by them, the musicians also make real connections with their audience.
On their way to wherever, people of all ages and in all states of dress pause and tap their feet to the music. Some dance, doing little grooves as they walk by, or slow down to enjoy the music for a minute as they pass. If they're feeling especially generous, they might stop and tell the musician to keep it up.
Here is an introduction to six of Portland's most familiar buskers. Some have regular spots; others just pop up whenever they sense people might need some music and, hopefully, lighter wallets. What they have in common, though, is the decision to transform the sidewalks and streets into their own personal stages.
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-wearing 59-year-old adds his twangy voice to the mix, singing covers of blues songs with added lyrics that reflect his surroundings.
"Blues in particular, is all about that call and response sort of music," Samuels said. Sometimes he sings 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 passers-by, 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.
Rick Marr said he is one of Portland's few full-time buskers.
(Continued on page 2)