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(a continuation of previous article here) Finally, I managed to get an copy of this article…thanks to the fantastic magazine AUGUST MAN, and to the diligent photographer Yong-the-mooky-veggie. We’re able to cryogenically-cyberspace a piece of printed mag for your viewing pleasure. Thanks Mark.

I did it. I finally set a date to audition with the National Arts Council and obtained that little green slip I needed to busk on the street. And the license to perform in public for the possibility of earning tip money came laminated, no less! I am just glad I wasn’t one of those who got ejected from the presence of the NAC panel. Yes, many are unaware of this, but you need to audition for a busking licence. And yes, there are people who don’t make it.

Armed with my glossy new licence, a tuned guitar and a sidekick – none other than Jason Ho of the local band Low Intensity (or then again maybe I was his sidekick) – I was all ready to sing my heart out to the everyday red dot citizen at a random underpass in town. Jason, who like me has a real day-time job besides dabbling in a band for the love of music, has been busking since earlier this year. One reason is the fact that his band focuses entirely on original compositions practically scratches out the possibility of ever getting gigs in Singapore. So the one question I was interested in answering with my stunt was: can a local music act gain positive exposure performing their original work (and therefore unfamiliar to the public) in an informal setting like an Orchard Road underpass? If you’ve caught the 2006 movie Once, you’d be able to see things from a busker’s perspective and understand his dream. But that is Dublin.

The Zone Of Obligation

In Singapore, to say that busking is a unique experience is an understatement. I felt I’d literally crossed a line that turned me from a normal day-job holder into a questionable segment of society. Passers-by glanced at us from the corners of their eyes as they quickened their pace and hurried on. Many even veer away from you, lest they come within 1.5 metres of us – the Zone of Obligation as Jason coined it – where if crossed into, would make them feel the need to reach into their pockets for some spare or suffer the guilt of wronging the fellow’s craft.

Shabby Does It

After a few stints, I made two interesting observation: It helped if we positioned ourselves such that people had ample time to fish out some cash from their pockets – between when the busker is heard to when the passer-by reaches the street performer. The other was that the shabbier the buskers looked, the more money they would reap. We received twice as much when we changed into T-shirts and jeans as compared to when we both kept the clothes from our day jobs on. Evidently, the quality of the performance meant little to the everyday Singaporean. You had to look, well, pitiable. By the last session with Jason I was in a plain Giordano tee with paint stains, torn jeans, frazzled hair and no watch on. We made $36.35 in two hours. It was our most lucrative session to date.

Music For Everyone

The latter made me wonder about what the general public thought of buskers. Do they expect buskers to be handicapped, aged or generally out-of-work persons tapping into their final resource to make a buck? Do they never wonder about talent that’s waiting to be discovered or appreciated? My colleague told me about this pianist in Place Massena, Nice, who plays concertos on a grand piano at a street corner (he brings his own white baby grand). When asked why he isn’t performing with an orchestra (because they thought he was good enough), he coolly answered that his music is for everyone, not just those who pay for a concert ticket. This is pretty much how Jason feels. His goal every evening was to de-stress from a day at the office, play his music to whoever was listening and maybe find enough tips for the cab-fare home. Unlike, my colleague’s experience in Nice, people stopping for a moment to listen to a street performer is still rare here.

Silver Lining

There is some hope yet for buskers like Jason however. I did see some individuals slow down to listen to a few more bars of his tune, before dropping a red bill. It’s rare but it happened. And I came to understand what it felt like to have an individual of an undefined higher strata of society give you a mental thumbs-up in the most obscure of places. Busking is something that I would choose to do again soon, given the opportunity. Apart from a love of performing, there is also something indescribably thrilling about being a voyeur of society. The money earned each evening was both literally and figuratively the smallest thing I took back with me at the end of the whole experience.


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