Your Community

Canadian buskers offer a glimpse into the life of a street artist

Categories: Community


Some Canadian buskers jump through fire as part of their act, but the uncertainties of street-performance are the unseen hoops that many of them worry about leaping through. (Photo: FireGuy)

Summer is prime time for Canada's thriving street-performance community, and our warmest months are filled with some of the most impressive busker festival lineups in the world.

If you've ever witnessed a good corner magician or street acrobat, and have seen the kind of money they rake in after a single show, you may think that with the right skills and some natural charisma, buskers make an easy living doing what they love.

But the CBC Community wanted to know how much work actually goes into a 30 or 45-minute set.

What are the day-to-day challenges that street performers have to face, both with city bylaws and unwritten busker codes of conduct? How do outdoor performers prepare for the offseason when the seemingly endless summer suddenly disappears?

We recently reached out to three street artists who work in some of Canada's busking hubs and asked for their own take on the highs and lows of the culture.

A big thank you to each of them for taking the time to share their stories.

Click on a face to read what each artist had to say.

FireGuy- 100.jpg Eden- 100.jpg BASHU-100.jpg

Brant "FireGuy" Matthews


FireGuy JUGGLING.jpgFireGuy dazzles audiences around the world with his fire juggling and balancing skills (Submitted by Brant Matthews) "FireGuy" is a Toronto-based fire expert who's been juggling, breathing and swallowing flames around the world for over 15 years. He also runs the local street-talent agency Dispatch Talent.

He tells the CBC Community about a day in his life as a street performer and the impact new technologies are having on his line of work.

Dundas Square is one of the main Toronto busking spots. You need a pass and insurance to perform there.

A bunch of different acts will come and draw numbers out of a hat in order to pick the spots. Some nights I show up to the draw at 4:30 and don't get a spot until 9 or 10 p.m.

Tonight I drew first, started at 5 and noticed some clouds rolling in. I decided to do a speed show and crunched my 45 minute set into 30. I sped up my fire juggling and eating routines and finished my show at 5:30, passed the hat and packed up as fast as possible.

I load up my dented Honda Civic as fast as possible because I can smell the rain now. It starts raining at 5:40 and I'm happy I left out some jokes and routines. I feel bad for Tribu (an Ecuadorian pan flute band) because they ain't selling no CDs tonight. I made the right call to speed it up.

Dundas Square is closed for 8 days in a row because of a corporate event or festival. Harbourfront will become the main pitch for the rest of the summer. Queen Street can be good, but the junk jewelry vendors get pissed if you hog too much of the traffic. I started on Queen Street in 1997 and sometimes perform there to sharpen up. It's good to see who the young up-and-coming street acts are.

Summer in Canada is about festivals, bookings and street performing. There are more busking festivals in Canada than any other country. Yes, Canada is the world leader in busking festivals. Many international acts work at various long-running festivals. I have performed at most of them.

Shakespeare once wrote all the world is a stage, but it has changed. All the world is now a film set. People are filming me on their smartphones at an alarming rate. I believe in the future that buskers and busking spots are going to get more competitive and the quality will rise sharply. Smartphones and social networks are making distribution of content instantaneous.

Soon, buskers are going to become bigger and bigger celebrities. If you don't believe me, remember that Justin Bieber started as a busker in Stratford, Ontario. Look how much good that has done the world.
Eden Cheung

Eden CHEUNG.jpgEden Cheung can be seen around Vancouver performing his unique brand of comedy and magic (Submitted by Eugene Cheng) Eden Cheung is a Vancouver street magician who incorporates music, comedy and balancing acts into his performance.

Cheung has recently become a prominent voice against controversial new regulations and a revamped audition process buskers now need to go through in order to get a chance to play at the coveted Granville Island outdoor market adjacent to downtown Vancouver.

Check out this recent report from CBC News Vancouver on the new regulations.

Cheung also talks about what he does to compensate for the winter lull and other licensing programs Canadian cities can look to as models.

I mainly perform on Granville Island, but the way the new regulations have been going, I've been forced to take gigs in between street shows just to pay the bills. On a typical day, there can be anywhere from 15 to 30 performers on Granville Island competing for seven spots.

There is now a two-tier audition system. The first audition grants a performer the right to play on Granville Island, and the second audition grants the right to play the best two spots during the best four months. The judges often have an artistic background (symphony, theatre, singers, etc.) but never a busking background. In past seasons, many top quality local acts have been excluded from performing on their "home pitch".

To perform and help maintain Granville Island's reputation as a busking destination during the rainy Vancouver winter and then be forced to watch as others profit during the lucrative summer months can be hard to stomach. In my opinion, having a busker on the judging panel would prevent some of these oversights.

To give credit where credit is due, GICS management is placed in a difficult position where they cannot possibly please every stakeholder. At the same time, the buskers have been getting the short end of the stick more often than not.

Busking is obviously harder and less lucrative outside of the summer months, so recently I've been travelling to Australia and New Zealand to take advantage of the southern hemisphere's inverted seasons. Our rainy winter is their beautiful summer.

Australia has some very well organized busking programs and it seems the city councils of Melbourne and Sydney recognize the value of a healthy street performing scene and have gone out of their way to ensure its long term survival. As a result, many of the world's top street performers come from Australia.

After the success of the buskers on Granville Street during the 2010 Olympics, the Downtown BIA has expressed interest in recapturing some of that magic. The Vancouver International Busker Festival will be in its second year this June 29, 30 and July 1 (Canada Day) and I will be performing as a part of it.

> Bashu Naimi-Roy

Bashu PLAYING.jpgBashu Naimi-Roy has been around the Montreal busking scene and has written a how-to guide on navigating the scene (Photo: Joaquin Cabello Aguilar, Submitted by Bashu Naimi-Roy)
Bashu Naimi-Roy is a British Columbian accordion player who moved to Montreal to busk in the city's storied metro stations. He spent several months there learning the codes and ethics that have sprung up organically among the busker community and also spent some time getting to know the different performers who've played the Montreal scene for years.

He used his experiences to write a Montreal busking how-to. Here he tells us what sets him apart as an accordion player in a city known for its unique street musicians, and offers a small look at how the Montreal community operates.

I play accordion in the Metro stations of Montreal. The thing that makes me different is that I will never play the same style for more than three songs at a time. Let me explain:
First: The accordion has the power to play five hundred styles of music, and I dearly love all of them. Why chain a dog that wants to run?
Second: In Metro busking, people don't stick around for three songs! If I want to play a Klezmer bulgarish, a Fleet Foxes song, and Tam Lin's Reel, and finish with a waltz from Amelie, it ain't nobody's dirty business but my own. And people are plenty happy to hear all of them. Why chain a dog that brings back fivers?
The Montreal Metro busking scene is very open and runs on cooperation. Most spots are free to any musician to sign up, without audition or license. This makes it truly a thriving scene. You can find blues, jazz, classical violinists, gypsy swing and a little bit of metal down here.
This job flutters on wings of goodwill and passion, so I'll quote you no figures. But friends, in Montreal, if you get up early and play with heart, you can... yes, it's true... make your living by making people smile on public transit, an occurrence generally agreed to be rarer than a shooting star.

SOCIAL POLL | What kind of street performers have you made a point of donating tips to?

*Please note that this is a non-scientific and pre-moderated social poll. These are reader-submitted questions that have been approved by CBC staff.

We invite you to participate by offering a question
to add, but please stick to the same template and our.

Have you donated to these kinds of street performers?

Do you make a habit of leaving tips...

Back to the menu


Tags: CBC, Community, Your Take

Comments are closed.