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The sounds of the street: A day in the life of four downtown buskers

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann recently sang on Main Street in Northampton to help fund a trip to Ghana. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton as Hana Shukri Ayesh drops money in her jar. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rachel Mann plays on Main Street in Northampton as a passerby drops money in her jar. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street. “I’m not out here to make money,” he says. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marty Stevens tap dances on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Wetherbee with his open case and tips on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Wetherbee performs on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Wetherbee with his open case and tips on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Wetherbee performs on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Wetherbee talks with a passerby as another pedestrian gives him a tip on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ben Wetherbee first fell in love with busking while performing in Cork, Ireland as a college student. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kade Parkin plays drums on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kade Parkin performs on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kade Parkin performs on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kade Parkin performs on Main Street in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, June 15, 2018

It’s summer, and while most of the college students have gone home, the buskers are just coming out for the season. Downtown Northampton isn’t exactly Montreal or Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but it is a pretty good spot for many performers who depend on tips for food, travel, rent or other expenses.  

For some performers, busking — which comes from the Spanish word, buscar, “to seek” — is just a fleeting moment in their career. But for others, it’s an important stop on the road to fame. “Some wonderful musicians got their chops by performing for street audiences, and there’s lot of merit in putting yourself out there,” says drummer Kade Parkin.

British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran spent nights couch-surfing and playing his original songs on the Circle line trains before he broke onto the scene with his first album. Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman, B.B. King and even Robin Williams all got their starts on the street.

On a recent summer day, we caught up with four performers to catch a day in the life of a downtown busker.

 

Rachel Mann, singer-songwriter

Having played some gigs at clubs around town, Rachel Mann began performing on the streets this summer as a way to supplement her income and help fund an upcoming trip to West Africa. “The street performing is a new thing,” she said earlier this month at her spot in front of Thornes Marketplace. “I, believe it or not, am really shy. I’m an introvert.”  

An introvert with a powerful voice — Mann, who describes her music as a mixture of folk, country, bluegrass and Americana — sings original songs accompanied by her acoustic guitar. (She has a sleek website at rachelmannmusic.com.) Originally from Portland, Oregon, she moved to Northampton last September on a full scholarship through the Ada Comstock Scholars Program, Smith College’s initiative to help women of “nontraditional college age” complete their bachelor of arts degree. A former hairdresser, she first went to community college with an interest in activism. At Smith, she majors in Africana studies, which examines issues of race in modern culture, and also encourages students to travel abroad.

Mann sought out an internship in Ghana with the Cheerful Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit working to educate rural citizens about human rights and public health, among other initiatives. While Smith offered some financial assistance, Mann says she is “hand to mouth — every penny counts.”

Once in Ghana, she added, “I’m hoping to find a cheap guitar over there, so I’m only bringing a capo and a tuner.”

In Northampton, Mann says, she appreciates the “interesting street dynamic between panhandlers and musicians… Everyone has been really welcoming. I made sure to introduce myself and not step on anyone’s toes.”

“I always sort of joke that I’ll never starve,” she said, “as long as I can cut hair and sing songs.”

Ben Wetherbee, fiddler 

As a music instructor for an after-school music program in Franklin County, Ben Wetherbee teaches violin in low-income neighborhoods when he’s not performing on the street.

The Northampton native first fell in love with busking as a college student (he went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York) when he spent his junior year abroad in Cork, Ireland. “Ireland has such a reputation for music — it’s really a part of the culture,” he said one afternoon, taking a break at Haymarket Cafe.

He especially enjoyed the late nights when he linked up with groups just passing through — with his relaxed demeanor and messy blond curls, he has an approachable, infectious energy. “I met this one band from Prague on the street — they were there in Cork for one wild night, and I just joined the band,” he recalled. “They were having a party on the street, and we were running around town, having an insane time playing techno-swing acoustic tunes.” His encounters abroad gave him the confidence to continue busking back home. “That felt so dangerous and exciting at the time,” he said with a laugh.

Busking in Northampton has been an entirely different experience for Wetherbee, but he appreciates the smaller population of street performers that, at times, feels like a tight community. He also likes performing outside, amid the bustle of downtown. For the casual bystander, “A lot of the fun is the surprise of it,” he said. For the busker, the challenge is trying to attract the attention of pedestrians who are on their way somewhere else. 

“You have to strike this weird balance of having music that’s appealing to people that are actually going to stay and watch you,” he said, “and at the same time something that’s appealing to somebody who’s just walking by and only catches five seconds of it.” While he usually plays traditional Appalachian music, sitting on a plastic bucket, he tries to add variation to keep it unpredictable and people coming back. (He accepts tips in his velvet-lined violin case at his feet.) The challenges are outweighed by the chance to do something he cares about, he said: “You can go out and make $15 an hour at a coffee shop, or $15 an hour doing something you really love.”

 

Martin Stevens, tap dancer

“I’m not out here to make money,” said Martin “Marty” Stevens, an avid dancer from the age of 5. Standing on a small wooden plank outside of Coldwell Banker on Main Street, Stevens said he just “wanted to bring something new to the area — I didn’t see a lot that got me excited.”

Though he’s the only tap-dancing busker in Northampton — at least the only one he knows of with a permit — he closely identifies with the other buskers he’s met. “I think there’s a psychology to a street performer, ” Stevens said. “We’re loners, in a sense.” Loners who are nevertheless part of a community: Stevens sometimes gets together with other musicians. “We all hang out at Theodore’s in Springfield — it’s a good group.”

Born in Western Massachusetts, Stevens has a long history in dance: The art of tap runs in his family; both his father and his uncle used to dance. When Stevens was a boy, his father would occasionally break into spontaneous dance in unexpected places. “We used to go shopping, and my dad would be dancing in the aisle,” Stevens said, demonstrating the tap routine on the street. He’s since adopted the habit himself; he’s been known to tap dance in the aisles of Big Y.

He recently spent some time away from the city when he went to Boston to be with family. He soon realized how he missed dancing in Northampton, he said: “I had to make it full circle, coming back to try and be me again.”

 

Kade Parkin, percussionist

Percussionist Kade Parkin also found himself influenced by family. As as a kid, he played around on his dad’s drum kit. Growing up in Worcester, he began to take music more seriously as he got older, joining his high school’s drum line, and eventually majoring in music at Holyoke Community College. 

Parkin started busking earlier this year, and he uses it as a form of practice when he’s not performing with his two bands. His band “Zikina” uses traditional East African instruments, and their style influences some of his solo beats. Sometimes when he’s out busking, he is joined by his college friend and fellow drummer, Joel Turcotte; they have similar tastes, and a duet brings something new to the performance. “Everything is 100% original,” Parkin said. People who stop and listen are fascinated by his suitcase drum kit, the suitcase itself serving as the kick drum as well as his seat (softened by a pillow). “It’s really cool to reach people through music and an instrument that maybe they’re unfamiliar with,” he said.

When he’s not on Main Street, Parkin teaches drums at Guitar Center in West Springfield and works as a landscaper. He hopes to become a fulltime musician someday soon, and busking is helping him reach his goal. 

“A lot of times people think buskers are broke,” he said. “I see it as an opportunity — making income and being more connected and getting better at playing.”