Saturday afternoon reflections
It’s carnival time in Freiburg – and it’s quite something. The kids are let off school for a week, half the population is dressed up in colourfully gawkish medieval robes, there’s face-paint everywhere, and age is absolutely no barrier to participation.
On Saturday, Carnival celebrations were kicking off in Freiburg. Outdoor stalls and make-shift bars peppered the main streets and there were marching bands everywhere.
Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best choice for Jan and I to go busking. A couple of times we were quickly drowned out by horns and drums. German preparation was not a feature of our ‘Straßemusik’.
For a while, it was a comedy of errors as Jan’s two euro guitar stool lasted the grand total of three songs, his hand seized up as a result of some weird manoeuvre from Qigong and I managed to pick one of the few spots in the town centre where busking was strictly prohibited.
Despite our troubles, we somehow worked out how to get a small run on. And for that slew of songs, before being handed a map by the police, it was quite magical.
During my early days in Freiburg I busked solo a couple of times. It was a great introduction to the city, but I don’t know if people knew how to interact with someone playing jazz standards. What I found, or at least what my tips revealed, was that Freiburgers seemed to love the gentle background music. ‘Love is in the Air’, ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ were always hits.
People would stand at quite a distance, often lingering on the other side of the street before making their way over and immediately heading off. It was as if standing too close would take them away from the music.
Busking with Jan was very different experience – all of a sudden, just like our gigs in ’42 songs’, we were an act. There weren’t any boundaries between us and listeners. People would stop mid-track, take in the tune and leave a few coins in the guitar sleeve.
Sometimes, it was an even closer experience. I loved it when Mums took their little tots up for a dance. Or the fascinated middle-aged men or young couples came a couple of meters up – enjoying trying to work out where they could find ‘The Sunny of the Street’.
Asides from the handy beer and chips money, my favourite moment took me back to Berlin. About six years ago, I remember hearing a young guy – probably a music student making his way, play Mozart’s clarinet concert, with a lovely gentleness. All without notes.
For such a great performance it deserved a much greater crowd. The curse of the solo busker.
I stayed until it was very over, pushing back against a wall leading into the Kreuzberg markets on a sunny August afternoon and made sure he knew I was listening when he re-emerged from the music. The incredible effort, for someone to translate one of the best ever classical works into street music, has always stayed with me. I remember how that song completely changed my day. It was a new rendition of a favourite concerto and it coloured everything.
I’ve often thought about that day and that incredible recital, so it didn’t take me long to find the fellow traveller. Leaning into the concrete that separated the bank from the street was another youngster. I don’t think he would have been much older than sixteen, with one of those frames that he hadn’t quite grown into. A fresh face – with no signs yet of the cynicism of early adulthood. But old enough to stop for music and to have a hint of melancholy.
On that face was a look of wonder. I had the sense that for him swing was newly discovered but familiar. Much like the start of a lovely friendship. With the subtle head rocks and quiet singing along to ‘it don’t mean a thing’, it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to forget his Saturday.
Even after it was time to move on, he stayed looking – hopeful that just maybe, there might be something more. It was the look of someone who had just finished a good book and it was a thrill to have created that sense of connection.
For that moment of curiosity – it was all worth it. All the playing, all the songs, gigs and mucking about was just a warm-up act to seeing music talk in Freiburg.