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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Refined begging"

When I was 15 I started to play music on the streets. I did it for a long time; first in the near vicinity, but after a year I hitch-hiked to France with a friend (who is now, by the way, a very successful professional musician) to play in the streets. I fiddled, he played a small accordion, we both sang; we played Irish folk, French folk, Dutch folk, Beatles, tangos from Malando, Greek ditties, some gypsy tunes. And we earned our own holiday – also because we slept in clochard hostels or at people’s homes; they would invite us to come and play at their party in exchange for food, drink and a bed. So we continued with it for years. Our most successful year was when we joined with two girls, one a blonde flute player, the other one a cute bellydancer. The French loved it. Life was great: sleeping on the beach in Antibes, and earning lots of money – at least for the four of us, happy with nothing.
So I always sympathize with street musicians, and teach my son to consider them as colleagues and give them money. Regardless what they do – some are great, some are not so great, but they probably have figured out that most people like music and that they want to tap into that. Better than robbing old women of their handbags.
Now the Netherlands is a very regulated country. Overregulated, some people would say. Most of the times I simply count my blessings, but on occasions I howl with the wolves. This is one of those occasions. In my town a political party which I actually consider as one of the more sympathetic suggested to organize auditions for street musicians. I wrote about all this before in more general terms because it happens everywhere, but now that it concerns my own town it becomes personally important, so I just go on. The idea is that too many people are playing in the streets, that they are a nuisance for the general public because their quality is not too good, and that local government should solve those “problems”.
The party wrote a policy paper on it, having nothing else of importance to do. People pro and against regulation were quoted in the policy paper. I must say, the people pro sounded less sympathetic than the people against, at least in my ears. When the proposal was discussed in the city council it was, luckily, dismissed. But it got into at least one national newspaper by an interesting U-turn. As follows:
My own journal wrote a page-long piece on the theme of loneliness, and quoted social scientists researching loneliness in order to prevent it. They then staged no-one less than J├╝rgen Habermas to show, rightfully, that this – preparing regulated and scientific approved Loneliness Prevention – is yet another case of the System penetrating the Lifeworld. The article then ends with the street music audition example from my town, saying: “I pity that guitarist in the street, who bureaucratically will be ruled away in favor of exquisite entertainment for the lonely consumer who can’t stand `refined begging’”.
And that, for me , is the nail on the head. Not only do I think we should not regulate everything, and government should be reticent in regulating the public sphere, or “public space” (oh word of horror); and not only do I think it is a hopeless assignment to shift street musicians by qualitative norms – whose norms, for God’s sake? (Already one of the party guys suggested conservatoire students could make the street music – as fond as I am of my students, those suggestions are outright ridiculous snobbish; the guy who made them, a former conservatoire principal, deserves 24 hours of unending bagpipe music under his window for punishment.) No, the most important thing is that I, again, ask myself why it is so hard for us to tolerate forms of “refined begging”. Where is the problem in donating 50 cents – or even a euro - once in a while to someone who plays music in the streets?
Or to someone who can’t play music but still does it, because he falls out of all the intricate systems and regulations we devised and is also not willing to go and sit nicely out of sight under a bridge and simply die?
What on earth are we afraid of?

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