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Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Slightly Wobbly "Streets of London"

When I ride home on my bike in the afternoon, I pass a supermarket. There is always, regardless the weather, an accordionist playing near the entrance. He plays simple songs, in a straightforward way. I often greet him by waving a hand. He often nods back. At the entrance of the supermarket in the village where I live, another accordionist is playing on a daily basis. I tell my son those musicians are all our colleagues (my son is six and a drummer), and nearly always we give him a coin or two.

Between my 15th and my 25th, I played street music. In the village where I lived. In nearby bigger cities. All over the Netherlands, in Belgium, in Germany, and in summer holidays busking and hitchhiking all the way to the south of France (ever slept on the beach of Antibes, or in a clochard shelter?). We played with ten musicians, or with two. In sunshine, in rain, in anything in between. We had fun. We earned money. We learned to speak French. We were invited to play at parties because people heard us on the street – we even played on a 3-day cruise to Sweden which included the “Miss Panorama” election because the organizers heard us in a shopping centre. We were kicked out of streets, insulted, nearly arrested, nearly robbed.

Given this part of my history, I can’t help loving street musicians. Of any kind. Yes, I love Joshua Bell playing Bach solo on his violin. I loved the Ecuadorian street bands which flourished in the 1990s in the Netherlands (read Jeroen Windmeijers book about them). I love the Bulgarians and Romanians livening up the entrances to the supermarkets. And I love the old, drunk guy playing three notes on his mouth harp in the shopping street.

Oh, there are so many legal and even ethical questions to be considered. About half a year ago, I read an article on how Dutch municipalities try to regulate music in the streets. The first alinea: “The number of Eastern European street musicians grows steadily in the Netherlands. More and more shopping streets have to cope with noise pollution, begging and petty crime. Municipalities try to bar out false notes with prohibitions and permits.”

Notice the order of the wording: noise pollution, begging and petty crime. Room provided, the list would have continued with arson, murder, and atomic warfare. The article contains examples of cities organizing auditions for street musicians, with musicians and civil servants – or even the eldermen themselves! - on the jury; of municipalities publishing exclusively Dutch language permit regulations which can not be read by Eastern Europeans in order to discourage their playing; of authorities tolerating Romanian language prohibitive road signs put into place by cafĂ© owners, road signs which can only be read by Eastern Europeans, also in order to discourage their playing.

And although I understand that some people will not like some street music, and I admit that not all street musicians are or have been prodigies like Joshua Bell, and I assume that in some cases there probably will be a relation between certain street musicians and illegal activities, I can’t help feeling amused and ashamed at the same time. Poor us. What is it that makes us want to regulate everything in “public space” ("authorities' space", actually)? Why can’t we tolerate false notes? Why can’t we live alongside people trying to earn money with a bit of monkey business? Why is it not possible to act against the worst excesses but for the rest just Let it Be (might be a nice song title, by the way…)?

When I return from far away (or not so far away) countries to the Netherlands there is always one habit I have to get rid of in order to re-Dutch myself: carrying loose change in my pocket to have my shoes shined with, buying sweets with, or simply to give to the old one-legged beggar. I wish we could cherish the idea more that it is a normal thing to do to give some cash to people who are less lucky then ourselves. Especially if they play us a tune or two in return – even if the tunes happen to be a slightly wobbly “Streets of London” followed by a simple blues.

Kemal Rijken. “Valse muziek aan banden”. Binnenlands Bestuur, 9/7/2010, 9-11.

Jeroen Windmeijer. Poncho's, panfluiten en paardenstaarten. Indiaanse handelsreizigers en straatmuzikanten uit Otavalo, Ecuador. Amsterdam: AUP, 1994.

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