Buskers bring their magic to the Waterfront
Often likened to beggars, impromptu street performers make a valuable contribution to the performing arts, writes YAZEED KAMALDIEN
WALKING through central Cape Town on any typical day, you can spot a number of buskers plying their trade, but often their singing or dancing is viewed as just another form of begging.
Yet, internationally, busking is so much a part of performance art companies are set up to manage these artists who are booked for festivals in various cities.
Tony Lankester, chief executive of the Cape Town Buskers Festival, which is running for this first time this week, says international street performers are so busy that it’s difficult to pin them down for a booking.
The festival, on at the V&A Waterfront until tomorrow, is an additional platform added to this year’s third annual Fringe Festival which features shows from around the world at various venues.
Lankester said the Buskers Festival was aimed at “introducing South Africans to this culture”, while helping performers grow.
“Buskers are artists who work on a different stage. Work performed on the street is a lot more interactive. The dynamic between artists and audience is different,” he explained.
“Busking is entertainment and it is part of an arts landscape.
“One of the big differences between South African and international buskers is that the internationals are used to hustling for cash.
“They have a very structured performance. South African buskers stand up with a guitar, sing for 45 minutes and then sit down hoping for cash.”
Lankester said the workshops were a step toward professionalising busking locally.
“International artists are booked through an international street theatre company,” he said, pointing out the company told him they didn’t have a single South African on their books.
“We are hoping to change that and help South African artists to grow. Increasingly, busking is happening alongside big city festivals. It brings streets alive.”
Theatre director Tara Notcutt and dancer Sipho Didiza were in charge of curating the festival programme.
Notcutt dismissed notions that busking was inferior to what “real” artists or performers do in theatres, for example.
“Busking takes a lot of guts and courage. You have to entice people to your performance,” she said.
“It’s providing a bite-size of something meaningful in someone’s day. It’s a less formal environment and the most successful performers make people feel like they have watched something special.
“Busking takes a very particular kind of performer. It takes a special kind of crazy, and it is wonderful to get into it.”
Didiza said busking was a chance for artists who usually performed on theatre stages to “expand their skill set as an artist”.
“You can find something that you’re good at, and this could allow you to programme something instead of waiting on an audition,” said Didiza.
Performance artist Amy Watson, who has created site-specific work performed in various kitchens, said while she was not a busker performing in public spaces, her work was important for the arts. She will perform at the festival.
“Art is for everybody, not only people who buy tickets to see a show in a theatre. Lots of people think of busking only as singers, a guy with a guitar or street dance,” she said.
“It’s very easy to be dismissive of street performance… But there should be funding to make work for outdoors. If we don’t, we are neglecting an entire performance-watching population.
“We need to make spaces for people who don’t make work for traditional theatre spaces.”
Watson views busking as a way for the artistic community to “make public spaces exciting”.
“Working with existing buskers to curate spaces, to encourage and allow opportunities, would enable them to do their work.
“It is also important to allow other artists who want to make work for public spaces,” she said.
For Owen “Bravo” Mngomezulu, who has been busking for 16 years, it has always been a “good opportunity”.
“Busking is like any other profession. This is a job. There are people around the world who give busking a high profile. People respect them as artists,” he said.
‘Art is for
everybody, not only for those people who buy tickets to see a show in a
“I’ve been busking in the whole of South Africa. I’ve been to South Korea, the UK, Ireland, Botswana and Lesotho. I have been hired to perform at festivals and sometimes I go on my own to busk in the street.
“I know how to do it and how to get money without provoking anyone. I can get the stingiest person to pay me. I use comedy.”
Mngomezulu said busking was about “entertaining people and bringing different people together”. He will also perform at this weekend’s festival.
“The Waterfront is the best place to be as a performer,” he said of the venue. “This is where you will find people from all around the world. You don’t have to scout for an audience. They are all here.”
Henry Mathys, senior events co-ordinator at the Waterfront, said the precinct had had a busking programme for the past 20 years, which meant the Buskers Festival was a “natural fit” for them.
“The festival offers an opportunity to invest in the development of buskers and to assist in making it a more recognised artform,” he said.
Meanwhile, auditions for the Waterfront’s busking programme are ongoing. “Every six months, auditions are held at the amphitheatre. We generally get between 35 and 50 buskers at each audition,” said Mathys.
He added many artists across the world had been discovered through the art of
busking. “As a child, Justin Bieber busked on the streets of Canada. So did singers Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart and our very own Karin Zoid, who used to busk as a student.
“Busking is a flexible and creative way for young magicians, artists, musicians and other creative performers to not only earn an additional income, but to also begin building a loyal fan base. Performing at the Waterfront, for example, exposes buskers to many visitors.”
The Cape Town Buskers Festival runs today and tomorrow from noon to 4pm at the V&A Waterfront Amphitheatre. Performances are free.
Owen “Bravo” Mngomezulu has been busking for the past 16 years and will be part of the Cape Town Buskers Festival at the V&A Waterfront this weekend.
A stilt walker at the V&A Waterfront.
Performance artist Amy Watson sees busking as an opportunity for actors to step outside of traditional theatres, and interact with audiences in public spaces.