From dawn ‘til busk

Culture Music

The streets of Victoria are filled with two things — tourists and buskers. The latter are pretty interesting, it turns out

On any given summer day, Alyssa Jean Klazek can be found dancing barefoot on the sidewalk of the inner harbour, guitar in hand. Busking keeps her on her toes — both literally and figuratively — as she pulls from her skills as a former ballet dancer.

“I use the whole space. I love to go up toward people and back again,” says Klazek, who at the age of 17 was a Top 18 Canadian Idol finalist. “It’s really fun.”

Of the approximately 32 buskers participating in the Victoria Harbour Festival throughout June, July, and August, 80 per cent are returnees like Klazek. While the youngest buskers are in their early teens, about 70 per cent are over the age of 50.

In order to land their two-hour spots in the weekly rotation, all prospective acts must first audition in April before a four-person panel. If selected, buskers pay $235 to be a part of the festival.

“We rate them on how loud they are, how talented they are, the type of pitch the instrument has . . . [and] their repertoire,” says Joseph Gonyeau, market coordinator at the Victoria Harbour Festival who puts together the panel each year. “We try to make it as diverse as possible.”

Not all acts are musical, or even vocal, in the case of mimes. This year’s performers include a harpist, a cellist, a Chinese violinist, and an accordian player who specializes in Russian music that Gonyeau says “really blew everybody’s socks off” in her audition.

“It’s like a little microcosm,” Klazek says of the inner harbour, where she continues to play each year until the weather gets too cold for her fingers and vocal cords.

“With that comes a very different way of manipulating the energy that surrounds you — so for the meek and mild, I’ll tone it down and I’ll play something softer. For the more spicy individuals that I see around, I’ll play something that is funkier.”

A good day for Klazek consists of six hours of performing, with a few breaks between her two-hour shifts. She tends to play lighter, recognizable covers during the day and saves more explorative and original songs for the evening — all entirely unamplified, as mandated by the festival.

“I’ll have some people that come by and you can tell that they are sensitive to loud noise and so I will start to tone it down for them as they pass by, and there’s other people that come by and you’re like ‘Oh, you would much prefer for me to rock your face off,” says Klazek. “So that’s what I’ll do.”

Depending on the act and talent of the performer, some buskers in the inner harbour can make anywhere from 30 to a couple hundred dollars in two hours.

“You know, you can’t get that from playing canned music.”

“When I was 15 and I was busking on the inner harbour, there weren’t really any rules and stipulations yet, not like there is now,” says Klazek. “I could write a book about the intricacies of down in the inner harbour and the various characters — the characters that pass by, but also the buskers themselves, and some of the drama and the ridiculous things that end up coming up.”

The bombast of the inner harbour meant Klazek had been apprehensive about continuing to busk when she first moved to Victoria.

“It felt a bit cutthroat for me, for sure — that sort of, ‘this is my turf’ feeling and not necessarily the warmest welcome from other buskers,” Klazek says.

Gonyeau, meanwhile, has witnessed a change in this climate over his 14 years of working at the festival. “I think it’s become more congenial, everybody seems to get along really well.”

“We try to do nice things like when we pass by each other, we give each other a loonie or a toonie to say, you know, tip your hat,” says Klazek. “It’s hard, because it truly is a competitive game.”

But Klazek sees a common thread between the performers that have what it takes to perform on the streets through the heat of the summer.

“There’s definitely a really cool strength that I find in all of the buskers and the fact that everybody is so unique, all coming from different walks of life with different styles of music and a different take on the art that they want to give,” she says.

“If you are putting yourself out there, you are in front of other people, and you’re baring your heart, you’re baring your soul, and you are expressing yourself, it is absolutely impossible to control any outcome.”

Buskers encourage people walking along the inner harbor to slow down or have a seat and enjoy the view with a bit more excitement, says Gonyeau.

“You know, you can’t get that from playing canned music.”

Photos by Belle White, Photo Editor