Culture | Music from the streets

McGill student gathers coins, phone numbers in Sherbrooke metro

If you’re looking for a summer job that pays the bills, connects you with local culture, and allows you to meet all kinds of different people, then U2 Cognitive Science student Henri Rabalais would like to suggest you try busking.

Rabalais started playing music in metro stations last year, after a friend who had experience busking in Vancouver convinced him to try it in Montreal. They performed together for a few months until he started playing on his own last spring, and over the summer he made it his full-time job. He sings and plays guitar and the harmonica when he busks, and also plays keyboards and is learning banjo and mandolin in his spare time. In an interview with The Daily, Rabalais emphasized, “Once you’ve had a good experience with an instrument, it can be kind of contagious.”

There are hundreds of buskers in Montreal, with a massive variety of instruments and styles. On any given day, there’s a distinct possibility that you might come across one of the saxophone players at Guy-Concordia, the infamous spoon man who’s been playing outside of Ogilvy’s since the mid-nineties, or some other talented musician looking for exposure. And it’s open to anyone: anglophones, francophones, students, travelers, people who have been busking as a career for decades. All you need is an instrument and the courage to play in public.

Still, it’s a daunting concept, and the process of getting started can seem complicated to the uninitiated – Rabalais may never have done it if not for his friend and her knowledge of the system. Musicians need a license to play on the street, and getting one can be costly and time-consuming. Playing in the metro is easier: all you need to do is locate a station that has a blue sign with a harp on the wall, which indicates a busking area, and then sign up to play a specific time slot. The whole  process is organized by the city’s busker community.

Rabalais prefers playing in metro stations, especially at Sherbrooke, where the long hallways allow for sound to travel and where the crowds tend to be friendly. He said he feels more vulnerable busking, where the barriers between a performer and their audience are broken down, than playing at a coffee house or open mic night. “When you’re playing at a bar, you’re playing to a crowd,” he explained. “When you’re busking, you’re a part of the crowd.”

The immediacy of that kind of a performance can sometimes be unsettling, but most of his experiences have been good. He’s met a number of people through busking: many of them have stopped to talk to him during their commutes, and he tends to speak to the buskers who play before and after he does. Once Rabalais played a set with a fellow busker whom he met on the job; another lent him her mandolin. Commuters are sometimes indifferent and occasionally hostile, but many have been generous. While busking over the summer, in addition to meeting his goal of making a living, Rabalais was offered beer, cigarettes, pastries, a rare coin from 1912, and two girls’ phone numbers.

The exposure to different people is a large part of why Rabalais thinks other musicians at McGill should make the effort to try busking. It helped him get more of a sense of Montreal as a city, and it’s an effective way to break out of the insular McGill bubble. He still tries to busk, and manages to do it once a week or so during the school year. He also plans to record an album at some point in the future.

Regardless of what’s next, the experience of having made a living for himself through busking provides him with a “deep comfort” about the future – another reason he recommends it to anyone he can. “Even if everything in the world goes wrong,” Rabalais said, “I can sustain myself off of this thing that I love.”

For anyone who aspires to a performance-based career, the experience and confidence busking can provide is invaluable.

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