In pragmatic Singapore, can the urban art of busking go beyond passion to become a sustainable business?
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Published on 3 February 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Singer-songwriter Corrinne May has performed to packed audiences at the Esplanade and Gardens by the Bay, but between 2005 and 2006, this Los Angeles-based Singaporean artist busked fairly regularly at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.
“It can be humbling because sometimes you can stand there and sing, and it feels like everybody is just walking past,” she shares. “But it’s also a very empowering experience because you see first-hand which songs work to bring on a smile or a reaction from the audience.”
Among local buskers who’ve made a success of their passion is Kelvin Tan Wei Lian, winner of Ch 8’s Project SuperStar 2005. The visually-impaired, Tan was a Mandopop singer who earned his living as a busker before his win led to the eventual release of three albums.
Few know that music greats such as Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman and Jewel started out as street performers. Current chart-topper, British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, also started out the same way.
Around the world, buskers are known to enliven streets and give character to a city. And they come as colourful as a painter’s palette: from musicians to mime artists, dancers to daredevils!
But street performing was discontinued in Singapore in 1994 when it gained a bad reputation after laws were flouted concerning performing in non-designated areas. Thankfully, the National Arts Council (NAC) and then-Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as the Singapore Tourism Board) renewed the proposal to have busking in our city, and busking was re-introduced in 1997.
Today, the most common street-performance art form is music, followed by street theatre and visual arts. You’ll find street performances in many designated areas across the island: from Orchard Road, Marina Bay, Kampong Glam and Little India to public parks and open spaces at Sentosa, shopping malls and even the heartlands.
Like any other art form, busking requires a commitment to the craft. “You need patience and focus, but it keeps you on your toes and teaches you how to communicate with people,” says Ed Johnson, a professional human statue and overseas busker who was invited twice to perform at the Sentosa Buskers Festival.
While challenging, street performing has its perks. “I’ve had people come up during a song and give me a flower, which is a bit embarrassing but super sweet, too,” says Shannon, 12, who sings while her brother Christian, 14, plays the guitar and other instruments.
The talented teens who call themselves Way Past Curfew were finalists in Okto channel’s talent shows like One Minute of Fame in 2013 and The Stage Is Yours in 2014.
“They’re both passionate about music and very self-driven,” reveals their mum, Sandra Boesch. “Busking has been good for them because it requires planning, being professional, working together as a team and working through creative disagreements.”
Way Past Curfew reveals that on a good day, they can earn over S$100. While their parents hope they will get a university education, they are also supportive should the siblings decide to pursue music as a career.
For Daniel Beng, 42, what started out as a hobby soon turned into serious business. He recently left his job of 10 years — as a secondary school mathematics and music teacher — to be a full-time busking violinist.
“You only live once, and money isn’t everything,” he reasons. “What’s more important is doing something meaningful that brings joy to others.”
For Johnson, five years of busking for a living led to professional gigs and the setting up of his company, The Living Statue Company, based in the United Kingdom. Local street theatre magician Alexander Yuen also set up his company, Meta Illusions, after being engaged for corporate gigs.
To start busking in Singapore, it’s as simple as going for an audition and being issued a Letter of Endorsement under NAC’s Busking Scheme. This is valid for a year and allows you to busk at up to five designated locations.
But whether it becomes a viable business or not, Beng isn’t worried. “The streets are where music is needed. I just believe anyone and everyone deserves to be treated to good music!”
How much do you know about busking and buskers in Singapore?
MOST POPULAR BUSKING STRETCH
Singapore River — the promenades flanking both sides of the river, from Kim Seng Road to Anderson Bridge.
YOUNGEST ENDORSED BUSKER
Eleven-year-old Marco Zeng who plays the violin.
OLDEST ENDORSED BUSKER
Tan Chai Heng, an 80-year-old Chinese traditional instrumentalist who plays the erhu and dizhi.
‘Woodball Woola Chains’ by Oh Ow Kee — an elderly gentleman who performs the hula with long chains of wooden balls!
For more information on the Busking Scheme, visit www.nac.gov.sg