Monday, December 9, 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.
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 said he is saving 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.
Said Anwar Cato-King
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 10 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 said.
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 said. "It really helps with the instrument from what I hear."
Malakie said a lot of passers-by 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 said.
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.
Three 20-something Portland residents make up the old-time bluegrass band Tumbling Bones. And when they busk, it turns into an unpredictable 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 all three might put down the instruments and harmonize a capella 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 a local show, 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."
Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Photographer Gregory Rec contributed to this report.