Monday, July 25, 2011

The Copper Cowgirl

Throughout the cities of the world, there are probably many hundreds if not thousands of talented people who gather the tools of their craft and head out into the streets and public spaces to make their living by entertaining, and hopefully brightening the day of some of the people who pass by. Collectively called buskers or street entertainers, they come in a variety of artistic categories. There are musicians, jugglers, mimes, human statues, poets, dancers, clowns, balloon artists, and the list could go on.

Up to this point, mainly because I myself am a street musician, my posts have been stories about the musical aspect of busking, relating a few of my busking experiences, and those of some of my fellow musicians. While I will no doubt continue to have more stories about street musicians, in this, and I hope future posts, I will interview other buskers that fall into some of the aforementioned categories.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and do an interview with Claire Bezuidenhout (pronounced bĕ-zādĕn-hōt), who makes her living as a “human statue”. Claire was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and moved to Canada when she was a teenager, and has been living in Victoria BC, ever since. She began busking in 2007, and as the Copper Cowgirl, she has become a very popular attraction for visitors to the inner harbour causeway.

At first sight, as she stands silent and motionless atop her copper pedestal, one might think that the Copper Cowgirl was one of the local art installations, but then she’ll make an unexpected movement and elicit shrieks of surprise and laughter from her audience. Sometimes when someone takes the opportunity to stand next to the Cowgirl for a photo-op, they might suddenly be caught off guard when she places her hand on their shoulder. With each tip that is deposited in her copper coffee pot, she comes to life and commences into a “wild-west ballet” of robotic movements and friendly gestures, before drawing her copper pistol from her holster for an imaginary shoot-out, after which she slowly winds down to her original statue-like position.

Over the past four years, Claire has spent her “northern hemisphere summers” busking in Victoria, and in the off-season, has taken her act overseas where she has also busked in Melbourne & Perth [Australia], Auckland & Wellington [New Zealand], London [United Kingdom], Malaga [Spain], Paris [France] and Berlin [Germany].

In fact, it was her interest in traveling that inspired Claire to give busking a try in the first place. She explained, “I wanted to find something that could help me earn money while I was traveling, so I thought I would become a human statue, because I can’t play an instrument. I think it’s a really great way to travel, I feel like you really get a feel for the city [that] you’re traveling into, as opposed to just visiting it for a week and doing touristy things. You really are on the streets meeting real people and seeing the day to day activities. So, I feel like I get a really great perspective of each place I travel to.”

I asked where the inspiration for the Copper Cowgirl’s character came from and Claire said “I’ve been around horses all my life and I’ve grown up riding horses, so I guess I always felt like I had the cowgirl spirit. And I have a lot of the clothes already, so that helps.”

On the topic of the Copper Cowgirl’s outfit, Claire said “I have a lot of fun making my costume, as much as I have performing. I did paint my outfit, and I’ve made my chaps and several other articles of [the] clothing as well. That’s one of the fun things, to make the outfit and try different things. I have a few different outfits now, different chaps, a different jacket. and a few different versions of the cowgirl, so it’s as much [about] creating the character as it is performing the character. I have a Viking outfit as well, which is what I use in Europe, ‘cause they’re not as in tune to cowgirls there.”

Claire told me that what she enjoyed most about busking was making people laugh. “I really enjoy playing with people, having fun with them, getting them to play along with me and surprising them. And I love having fun with the kids as well. It often kind scares them, but [it] excites them at the same time.”

Out of all the places that she has busked, Claire said that Melbourne was her favorite. “I don’t know what it is about that city, it feels kind of like Vancouver, and kind of like Victoria I guess, but, yeah, I love Melbourne. I always have fun with the people there [and] I always meet really friendly people there. There’s a big arts scene there as well, so I like going to the theatre shows and stuff after, or going to the beach right before I busk, and then I’ll go to a theatre show.”
“In Melbourne, I busked around the South Bank area, everyone called the strip along the [Yarra] River, the South Bank. Apparently, the Bourke Street Mall is really good to busk at, but you have to busk at least six months along the South Bank before they let you audition for the Mall, so I was never there long enough to audition for that.”

When I asked Claire what her most memorable busking experience was, she mentioned performing in downtown Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. “It was a really, really wonderful experience for me, because everyone was ridiculously happy the whole time. Everyone was there to have a good time, so it was fun, tons of people every day and it was one of the greatest ten days of busking I’ve ever had.”

As the decision to be a busker would probably not be very high on most people’s list of career choices, I was curious to know what Claire might’ve said when she was 8 or 9 years old, if someone had suggested that one day she would be making a living being the Copper Cowgirl. “I would have said they were crazy,” she said, and then laughed. “I wanted to be a real cowgirl when I was a little girl, not a pretend cowgirl. I would’ve said ‘Close, but not quite what I was looking for’.”

And for anyone who might be thinking about trying their hand at busking, what has Claire learned in her four years as a street entertainer, that she would pass on as helpful advice? She said “I think that it’s important that you enjoy what you’re doing, because if you don’t enjoy it, you can’t expect other people to enjoy it.”
“Don’t take things personally. There’s always gonna be one or two people that aren’t very nice to you, and you can’t take that personally, you just have to brush it off and keep on going, and don’t let those little things get you down.”
“What else? Just be open to explore with your audience, don’t just present things, but always be open to do more and see more with them too, if that makes sense. Play with it, ’cause you’re on the street and unexpected things happen, and you just have to go with it.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Waiting Game: Part 2

In last week’s post, longtime busker Dave Harris, shared his memories from the old days when the causeway buskers had to put in a lot of “butt-time” in order to play at the more popular spots in downtown Victoria.
This week I will continue with some more recollections, this time from fellow buskers Jaime Nolan and Swan Walker.

* * * * * * * * * *
Jaime Nolan has spent the past 18 summers busking on the inner harbour causeway, where he plays guitar and sings a mix of 60's to 90's folk/rock. In the off-season Jaime is a biology and chemistry teacher.

"Right now, you look back on it as fond memories," he said. "But I’m sure at the time it was pretty painful at times when you’d be sitting there for like six hours, so you could do your two hour set. I remember many times, you never knew how many buskers were gonna be there before you, it was a gamble every day. You’d be walking and you’d see one of the other buskers a block ahead of you, and they’re just walking, taking their time and you’re like ‘Oh, if I run and get past them, that’s two hours I don’t have to wait,’ so you find some back alley way, and run real fast, to [try to] make it there before them, and if it was a tie, you’d do a little paper-rock-scissors."

"We’d get down here at 10 o’clock, so you could have the noon [slot], and of course if they beat you by five minutes, that was an extra two hours you’d have to wait. And then there was the time where we couldn’t leave the causeway, if you left, you forfeited your spot, so you were really glued to the causeway when you waited your time. If you left and someone showed up, there’d [sometimes] be like fisticuffs, you know, ‘You left, the spot’s not yours anymore,’ and you’d be like ’But, I went to get a coffee’. So then we started [to] make sure that the other buskers watched each other’s stuff, you know, so that’s when the community started to develop, ‘cause you needed to get off here every once in a while, to get something to eat."

Jaime said "It was definitely way more interesting, and I do miss the sitting [around] all day ‘cause you got to talk to the tourists, it was more of a community when you sat here all day, and you just felt like more a part of the scene. Now that we’re on our [scheduled] time slots, you show up like five minutes before your slot and leave ten minutes after, and we kind of don’t have the community that we used to have."
"The change came at the right time for my life, ‘cause my son was born and there’s no way I could sit here eight hours all day with a baby, so it coincidentally worked out for me, ‘cause I could then budget my time slots around my son’s schedule, but there is a big part of me that does miss sitting here all day like that."

I asked Jaime if he had the ability to turn back the clocks, would he want to go back to the old system.
"No, no, I wouldn’t, ‘cause things come at a price, like not having to wait all day and you can have a life outside of the harbour. But then of course, you’ve lost the community. I made way more friends, sitting down here all day, [talking] to the tourists, and [making] many connections, and I feel like that’s lost now with the time slots, but times change. Maybe I just gotta come down here and sit all day anyways, just for the hell of it [laughs], no reason why we can’t do it anyways."

* * * * * * * * * *
Swan Walker started busking on the inner harbour in 1997, and he plays the steel drums, guitar and sings. His repertoire consists of reggae, calypso and other popular tunes.

Swan said "There were a lot of good things about [‘the waiting game’]. You used to wait, but, I think the time went by so fast. It used to be fun, you know, people hanging out here, it become like a little community, there was so much that used to go on. You [would] have a lot of people who weren’t playing but they wanted to hang around. Now it’s a bit more cold, you know, everybody comes and they do their thing and they split. Before there was more warmth, I think."

In regard to the times when he’d come down to the harbour, and there’d be no spot for him because it was all backed up, Swan said, "Yeah, I remember those, you know there was nothing. Well, I never had a problem with that, because I know that’s how it goes. It never bothered me, I’d just go, and come back earlier [the next] time. [Sometimes] there were people who used to come, and I would [already] be here too, so, I had no problem with that, it didn’t make me feel bad at all."

The earliest that Swan ever arrived at the harbour was 7:00 in the morning. He said "I waited all day for the night spot. I suppose back then, when the moment lingers, you’re kind of ‘Oh, I had to sit here all day,’ but after it passes, you don’t remember it. I only remember the good things about that period, the time when you get to talk to [other] people who hung around you."

* * * * * * * * * *
As you have read this post, you may have noticed that the two words that Dave, Jaime and Swan mentioned more than a few times were “camaraderie” and “community”. It was these aspects of the ‘waiting game’ that made the whole process more bearable.
A large portion of our time was spent sitting around in our fold up chairs, on top of the concrete receptacle by the stairs on the north side of the centre of the causeway where the garbage bins used to be stored. We began to call it the “Buskers Dressing Room”. Most days we would be camped out there, shooting the breeze and joking around among ourselves and some of the other buskers that would occasionally join us.

I remember one time when when Dave and I were sitting around joking with another busker Chris Trygg, about how it would be neat to making a video movie parody of our lives as buskers. One of the ideas was a humourous poke at the competitiveness of trying to beat the other buskers to the spot. At that time, a number of the buskers had dollies that we used to transport our gear to the causeway. I had envisioned this skit of us all racing down to the harbour in a take-off on the chariot scene in the movie Spartacus. We’d all be racing down trying to get ahead of the next guy, cutting each other off, and having blades popping out of our wheels in order to try and pop the tires of the next guy, and so on.
Between the three of us, we kept bouncing the ideas back and forth and laughing hysterically. It was pretty silly stuff, but it did inspire Dave to show up a few days later with his newly purchased video camera with which, over the summer, that we thought might be our last, he started documenting the busking scene on the harbour and uptown. This all resulted in a couple of videos that both give a good sense of the Victoria busking scene at that time.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of either of these DVDs, you can contact Dave Harris at his website.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Waiting Game: Part 1

In early 2005, there were fears among many of the causeway buskers, that the transfer of the management and oversight of the inner harbour causeway, from the City of Victoria to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority would bring about the end of the busking scene as we knew it.
As it turned out, there were changes, but not all of them were as dire as we had feared. One in particular was a very welcome change.
The causeway buskers were now able to pick our time slots at weekly scheduling meetings. This meant that we no longer had to get up at ridiculous hours in the morning just to try and beat other buskers to the spot, so that we could have first pick on a time slot that we would then have to spend a considerable amount of “butt-time” waiting on, before we could finally set up and play our two hour set.

From a historical perspective, I thought that this would be an interesting topic for a blog post, so I called on three of my fellow causeway buskers Dave Harris, Jaime Nolan, and Swan Walker so I might be able to include some of their recollections of that era, in the post. I will be posting the article in two installments, today will include Dave’s memories, and next week I’ll post those of Jaime and Swan.

Just a bit of history; prior to 1994 when the City of Victoria started licensing street entertainers, it was not hard to find available places to busk as there wasn’t a lot of competition, but with the new licensing, there came an influx of prospective buskers, and consequently, a higher demand for the more popular locations around town, which included Murchies on Government Street, and the north and centre spots on the lower causeway. It was only natural that with this increase in competition for the same spots, that there would eventually be some disagreements.
In order to try and work things out and minimize any hostility among themselves, the buskers began to work out agreements regarding how the process for picking a time slot should work. It was agreed that it be on a “first come - first served” basis. After the first busker decided what he or she wanted to wait for, then the successive arrivals would pick their slot from what was left over. The two hour slots were booked on the even hour, ie: 10 AM, 12 noon, 2, 4, 6, and 8 PM, the most popular of which were the 12, 2, and 8 slots.
Over the next ten years, besides Dave, Jaime, Swan and myself, some of the other buskers vying for these time slots were Marty Field, Chris Trygg, KC Kelly, Jim Meighen, Julian Vitek, Shillelagh, Billy Goats Gruff, Angela Basombrio & Peter Richards, Oliver Swain, Steve LeStrange, and many others.
It should also be noted, that the upper causeway buskers and those along Government Street continue to operate under the old “first-come / first served” system, although it certainly doesn’t seem to be as competitive as it was in the past.

* * * * * * * * * *
Dave Harris is a one-man-band on the causeway, and he has spent the past 35 years busking on the streets of Victoria.
He recalls “The ‘waiting game’ was in full effect in the late ‘90s, I guess, early 2000s.” There [were] 600 licenses, I believe in ’99, or 2000, and okay, of those 600, probably fifty of them were panhandlers, and another two or three hundred were people that only came out once or twice, but there was a regular batch of at least eighty or a hundred buskers that were out on a regular basis, [so], If we wanted to get certain times at the harbour particularly, or at Murchies [on Government Street], there were a lot of people trying to get the same time slots, and it required often that people would have to get there early and wait to play sometimes quite a few hours.”

“There definitely was a nice shared energy among the people that were waiting, it was quite good and people were coming [and] seeking out the music in those spots because they knew there was going to be good acts because, only the good acts were willing to wait four to eight hours to play because they knew they were going to get a pay-off at the end. If you were just somebody that was a little bit green or a little bit rough, it wasn’t worth waiting four hours to play to make $10, so people came knowing there was going to be something good, [and] Murchies in particular was a destination for a lot of people that would wanna hear good street entertainment.”

“I’d come down, sometimes in those days I could still get away with playing on Government Street, and [still] go to the harbour and wait on the evening. I’d play at Bastion Square from 12 ‘til 2, and if Murchies came open, sometimes surprisingly it would, I’d whip down and play [there] for a couple of hours, and [then] whip down to the harbour as fast as I could and claim the night spot and sit for four hours.”

“I can remember waiting as much as twelve hours on long weekends to play at night on the causeway, getting down there at 8:00 in the morning to play at 8 at night. I did that several times on long weekends and only just beat other people that wanted the same thing, I can remember them showing up five or ten minutes after me and being quite irate that I was already there.”

“I remember Canada Day, maybe 1999 [or] 2000, 2001, somewhere in there, I can remember one guy camping out at 3:00 in the morning with his bicycle with all of his stuff. He had a little rollout mat, and went down there and slept on the buskers dressing room, thinking that he was going to beat me out for the night time of Canada Day. Well, of course, as you know, Canada Day down there at night is basically unworkable as a time slot so it backfired on him. He spent all that time waiting and none of the other buskers except for Swan showed up. He’s thinking we’re all gonna be showing up at 8:00 in the morning, 10:00 in the morning whatever, nope, nobody shows up and he’s just waiting and waiting and waiting. So, not to be mean to him, but he just didn’t know the ropes.”

“[And] yeah, the ‘waiting game’ had a certain amount of hostility associated with it too. There were a lot of people that weren’t really fans of the ‘waiting game.’ [There was one guy], his way of playing the ‘waiting game’ would be to tie his [empty] guitar case into the tree, with a note pinned on it saying ‘8:00 at night’, or whatever he would write on it. Of course that wasn’t how we were playing the ‘waiting game.’ The ‘waiting game’ was, you were there [actively] waiting, yes, you were of course allowed to run off and do an errand, or go to the bathroom, or get yourself something to eat, those kind of things, and we’d all watch each others stuff, but you couldn’t go off and just busk elsewhere. So some of the people didn’t like the ‘waiting game.’ I mean, none of us were really fans of it, but those of us who got along made it work quite well, because we got along with each other.”

“So they’re was a little bit of ugliness associated with the waiting game, but it was also really neat too, because with so many of us sitting around waiting to play, there was quite a bit of camaraderie happening. We were called the ‘scruffy lot’ by one of the causeway artists, Brian Henderson (slate carver), and Dwight (scroll saw artist) used to really enjoy us all sitting around behind him there on the center of the causeway.”

“You, me and Swan were the ‘three busketeers’, and we used to camp out on what we called the buskers dressing room, which was [on top of] the old garbage [bin] at the foot of the stairs on the north side of the centre of the causeway. We’d sit up on top, of the garbage [bin] with our little fold up chairs, and we called it the buskers dressing room.”

“And for me, there was an additional sort of an upside, I started sitting in with a lot of you guys. I’d be down there at noon waiting to play at 8:00 at night. Well you know, what are you gonna do for eight hours, so I started sitting in with you, and with Chris, and with Marty, Jaime sometimes, Fred Robertson. So, that was a nice upside of the waiting game was the camaraderie and the sitting in.”

Next week: The Waiting Game: Part 2

In the meantime, to read more about the local busking scene, be sure to check out the following archived posts:
October 15, 2009 - Victoria Busking Scene: 1977-1980
October 22, 2009: Scene Changes: 1989-2004