Buskers come into their own at a new Canadian festival

Until just recently, few people here in Halifax could tell you what a ``busker'' was. Now the term is as common as lobsters and loggers in this historic Maritimes city, which played host to the First International Street Performers Festival, ``Buskers '87,'' for 10 days in mid-August. City officials were so taken with the success of the event that they plan to proclaim Halifax the ``International Buskers Capital of the World.'' It's a presumptuous title, perhaps, for a city whose reputation has traditionally been based on fishing and shipbuilding, rather than international cultural events. The origin of the word ``buskers'' is unknown. The word is used more in Great Britain than in North America to mean anyone who entertains by singing or performing on the streets, in pubs, or in subway passages. At a time when busking is usually associated with the fringe element of major festivals, it's refreshing to see an entire festival dedicated to street performers, and, with a touch of irony, to offer over $20,000 in prize money to the best acts. Performers displayed numbered signboards and ballot boxes, while onlookers were encouraged by street hawkers to buy $2 programs, which included a ``people's choice'' ballot and short biographies of the performers.

One onlooker described the competitive atmosphere as reminiscent of a beauty pageant, while others felt more like they were part of a huge 50-ring circus on a pay-as-you-go basis. Aside from the possibility of winning prize money, buskers were encouraged to pass the hat, and many found the record crowds, averaging 35,000 a day lucrative and, at the same time, overwhelming.

``We've never performed anywhere that all of the crowds have just been so appreciative and so giving,'' said Mardine Rubio, who, with her husband, Rick Schnitker, are known on the streets as Variety in Motion. ``We just couldn't believe it,'' added Mr. Schnitker, following their final performance on Saturday night, just prior to the announcement of the final winners. Their act involves a number of skills, including juggling flaming clubs atop six-foot-high unicycles. Unlike other conventionally dressed performers, the Rubios wear matching tights and gold vests, reminiscent of a circus high-wire act, and apparently appealing to the crowds.

Nearby, Malcolm Buck, a long-haired guitarist, sings to a few on-lookers. With his open guitar case in front of him, he provides a stark contrast to the huge crowds surrounding the more theatrical performers on the street. Although eclipsed by jugglers, fire-eaters, and street vaudevillians, he is the quintessential busker, the one you'd expect to find on street corners or in the subways.

But that image is changing, according to Andre Vincent, a British comedian and vaudevillian at the festival, who's known on the streets as 'Arry Pavorotti.

``Some musicians have the idea that buskers are people who stand on street corners with their guitar case open, just waiting for people to walk by and chuck money in as they play,'' said Mr. Vincent. ``Now a performer goes out, gathers an audience, performs for a good half hour, then passes the hat. That's the new breed.''

Vincent sees the festival as a kind of street performers' convention, and, when asked about the prize money, said he is not a great believer in competitions. ``I can't see how you can compare a guitarist who stands on a street corner to a brilliant juggling act.''

The final event of the festival brought all the performers together, Saturday evening, in the parklike setting of the city's Wanderer's Ground, for one final round of performances. The collective feeling of all the buskers toward Halifax was so strong that in a final gesture of thanks, they all agreed to donate their ``last hats'' to the city's food bank.

As the evening drew to a close, crowds gathered around the makeshift bandstand to hear the announcement of the winning acts. Ford of Canada, Canadian Airline International, and local merchants sponsored prizes for various categories, including the most photogenic busker, the most riveting performance, a children's choice award, and the grand prize of $10,000 for the people's choice. And although they felt they had little chance of winning, since they arrived at the festival four days late, Mardene Rubio and Rick Schnitker of Variety in Motion were indeed the people's choice winners.

As I walked down the street to my hotel, I passed a lone singer on the street, busking. I dropped some coins into his hat. He nodded in appreciation and continued his song in the tradition that has survived for centuries before him and will, undoubtedly continue for years to come.

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