Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Sounds of the Islands

Looking for a subject for my next post, I searched through my backlog of unfinished drafts, and found this piece that I had begun after interviewing longtime Victoria busker Swan Walker in June of 2011.

Originally from the Caribbean island-nation of Grenada, Swan came to Canada in 1986. After a short visit to Victoria, he went to Toronto, where he spent three years, before returning to Victoria in 1989.

Playing keyboards and guitar, Swan had been gigging with Reggaelution, a local reggae band, when he realized that he needed a more steady source of income, so he began busking in 1996.

“I looked for more employment, [but] it was kind of difficult for me to find a regular job,” he said. “I’d been encouraged [to busk] by friends too, you know, so, I decided to try it.”

Over the next fifteen summers, (with the exception of 2008 when he was living in Japan), Swan sang and played the steel drums and guitar, keeping the rhythm with his kick-drum and sock-shakers, essentially bringing the sounds of the Caribbean islands to the inner harbour.

Besides his obvious reggae and calypso influences, Swan also cites soul, country and jazz as influences. He said “A lot of things influence my stuff. I try to play a variety of things in my own style, so, not everything is reggae.”

Swan told me a little bit about his musical beginnings and influences from when he was a kid growing up in Grenada.

“I started playing music, I used to play steel drums. They had a steel drum band in our village [that] I used to play in,” he said. ”Prior to that, I used to be singing in church, about 7, 8 years old, until I was like 12, 13, probably.”

I was quite surprised when Swan told me about some of the music that he was exposed to as a child in Grenada. He said “In the islands, there [was] a day, I think on Saturday or Sunday, when the radio station just played country music. A lot of people in the islands [were] big Jim Reeves fans, and we used to hear all these songs when we were children, because my parents, and people around [us], they had his records, and [we were] hearing it all the time.”

“And [Wolverton Mountain], well, I don’t remember the country version, I know that version in reggae, because a lot of reggae musicians back in the islands, they sort of changed some of the country songs into reggae.”

“A lot of gospel songs, and a lot of soul music too, ‘70s soul music, they always played a lot of those songs too, because they had at certain times on the radio station, they call ‘Oldie Goldie’ times, when they played all the old songs.”

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Swan also plays the keyboards and writes his own original songs, twelve of which are featured on his first CD Takin’ A Chance, which was released in 2001. He also released a CD of cover songs in 2005.

As for future recording projects, he said “It’s time for me to be working on another one, [but] I’ve got a home studio, and the environment where I’m living now is so close to the road, there’s just so much noise. I’m motivated to write more things and create stuff, but I’m not motivated to record because I need to get out of there and to be in a space where it’s quieter.”

So, what does Swan enjoy most about busking? He said “Just playing the music, performing. Busking is a hard thing to do, you know, it’s not all musicians that want to busk, and not all musicians would have the patience to busk. Yeah. It’s the music, I think.”

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At the time of this interview, Swan had mentioned that he was thinking of moving to Toronto, but nothing had been confirmed. He seemed a little ambivalent when I asked if he was looking forward to going. He said “I want to try something new, see how my music does in other places, [but] there is a part of me that don’t want me to leave, but, yet I feel l should go. I went to Japan and spent a year and a half, saw how things are there. I mean I’m in Canada, I should be able to go to Newfoundland if I feel like it, and try it out.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t until this past summer that Swan shared the news that he and his family would definitely be packing up there gear and making the move east.

In late July, just before he left, I along with fellow causeway buskers, Dave Harris, Jaime Nolan, John McCallum, Jean Bedard, Landen Shaw, gathered together to do a farewell set with Swan, to try to raise some funds to help him with his trip. It was a fun event with us all taking turns in varying combinations playing with each other and with Swan. I had to leave early, but it certainly was a highlight for me to join Swan for a countrified version of a song from his repertoire, Bob Marley’s One Love. Swan’s leaving will definitely leave a big hole in the local busking scene, and he’ll be missed by his fellow buskers, and his many causeway fans.

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Swan has now been in Toronto since August, and he successfully auditioned with the Toronto Transit Commission for a busking permit, and can now be found busking in the subway stations there.

When I interviewed Swan, he told me that he has good memories about Victoria. “You know, I spent most of my life here in Victoria, more than in Grenada.”

Did he think he might be back? Without hesitation Swan said “Yeah!”

In ending this post I would just say that Victoria’s loss is Toronto’s gain.

You can watch video of Swan by checking out the following links:
Swan busking in Toronto at Yonge & Bloor subway station

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Head, Hands And Feet...& More

Anyone who had been following this blog, may have noticed that I have not been posting for the past year. As busking is a big part of my life, I continue to go out and play, and still gather photos and videos of other buskers that I come across in my travels. However, due to a long bout of writer’s burnout, I have not been able to take it beyond that.

Recently, I got a phone message from my good friend and fellow street musician Dave Harris, letting me know that he had started a Victoria Buskers group on Facebook and was hoping that I would become a member. A number of other buskers from the old days were joining and sharing photos, videos and comments, and Dave thought that I would really enjoy reading it. Also, he believed that my contributions would add to the group experience.

It has now been a little over a week since I joined up, and after initially taking some time to familiarize myself with the layout of the site, I began enjoying the experience. Seeing all the posted photos, videos and comments has brought back a lot of memories, and sparked a renewed motivation to get back to working on my blog again.

More on the Facebook page a little bit later, but first a bit about Dave and his most recently completed endeavor.

It is probably safe to say that Dave might be the most dedicated busker in Victoria. Every summer for the last 35 years, he’s become a well-known local attraction, some have said “a fixture” entertaining local and international audiences on Government Street and down on the causeway. On top of that, in the off-season when not busking, he has kept himself busy with other busker related projects. Whether it has been producing many cassettes and CDs of his own music, or contributing to the many projects of other buskers, in his capacity as musician/producer/recording engineer, Dave, like the energizer bunny, just keeps going and going.

In 2004, Dave ventured into new territory when he bought a cam-corder and started documenting the local busking scene. Since then he has produced several DVDs, including four busker movies, all the while archiving new footage.

“What,” one might ask “could he possibly add to his creative achievements?” The answer to that question came early this year, when Dave became a published author with the release of his first book Head, Hands & Feet: A Book of One Man Bands.

Dave explained the process of putting the book together, which began in 2009 when he took the step to pay for an internet connection and started doing online searches.

“I started hunting around to see what was out there on me, as most people would do, and I actually didn’t find all that much, but I found all these other one man bands. I thought ‘gee, is there a book out about this?’ I started looking for that, and, no, there was no book, [so] I thought ‘well, maybe I’ll write a book’”.

“I’d written a number of articles for blues magazines and things like that over the years, and I always liked the writing process, and nobody had written a book on one man bands, so I thought this might fill a niche, and maybe music critics and people that collect books about music will be interested, because it’s very obscure.”

Over the next three years, Dave spent a lot of time doing more internet research, social networking, sending out e-mails, and doing telephone interviews with people, hoping to get them to share their experiences. He said “I tried to use people’s own words as much as possible,  [but] of course, wrote a lot of text, as well."

The end result is a top-notch 416 page hardcover compendium of information about one-man-bands. Interspersed with over 1200 incredible photos (most of them in color), the book includes a glossary of busking terms, OMB history, biographical entries of 900 OMBs from around the world (Canada, US, UK, Europe, Australia, Asia & South America). The bio entries range from in-depth pieces on more influential and better known OMBs, to shorter pieces on the lesser known, and brief mentions of the more obscure and those on the periphery. Music styles covered cross many genres, including blues, folk, country and punk. A worthy addition to any music collector’s bookshelf, the book would no doubt also be a revelatory read for anyone who didn’t know there was so much interesting information about a subject they may have only had a brief exposure to.

And now, back to the earlier mentioned Facebook group. After finishing his book, and upon completion of the most recent busking season, Dave began thinking about a new project, and he soon found his inspiration a little closer to home.

“You gotta write about what you know, so, of course, I’ve got yourself Country Dave, who’s done a massive amount of research and writing about the [busking] scene. Anyway, reading your blog has inspired me to want to go a little bit further with this, so I created [the] Facebook group with [the] idea in mind that eventually we would get input from everybody that was wanting to be involved, and put it together into a book. Being only a couple of weeks old, [the group] seems to be getting some traction, and taking off a little bit. People have been posting photos and I’ve been creating a list of all the buskers, Hopefully it’ll all dovetail nicely into putting together a nice little book, that all the buskers can sell when they’re doing their shows, we’ll see.”

So, in closing if you have ever busked in Victoria, or have enjoyed watching one of the buskers shows, hopefully you will join the group and share your comments, photos and/or videos at Victoria Buskers on Facebook.

If you are interested in purchasing Dave’s book Head, Hands & Feet, you can do so at his One Man Band Book blog.