Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Meeting Ms Melancholy

Her eloquent eyes were our first connection. Briefly she took my attention away from the manuscript in front of me. Then she walked. I didn't see which way. I couldn't stop in mid tune after all could I? But when I came to the end I did regret that I hadn't.

They do flash past mind. Connections I mean. Beguiling like silver salmon crashing up stream. Gone before you realised what they are. Energised by the laughing river they wriggle through the rapids to oblivion. And then there they aren't. Leaving this ancient bear blindly swiping at the shimmer, catching nothing but spray trails.

This one though wasn't all a-glimmer. This one wore a soft melancholy that showed itself more strongly when she returned three tunes later to talk.

That was the first problem. At first I thought that she was Italian. She could have been. A couple of days earlier an Italian lady had stopped to tell me that the melody I had just played, Hableme de Amores Mariu, belonged to her country. I hadn't claimed it was anything else but it seemed to be important to her that I should be clear on its origin if I was going to deliver it.

Imperfect analogy it may be but to me music is an international language. Perhaps for the Italian my crime on that day was to play the tune in the wrong accent. Was she generous to share her truth with me? Or was she so bereft that she claimed even this tiny trickle of sweetness solely for her own irrigation. Hoping one day that it would engender her arid heart to burst into flower.

Ms Melancholy was a different kettle of fish. More sardines than salmon, moist as a ripe fig, Ms Melancholy was homesick.

Without knowing why, she and I were on the same street in the same empty part of the same weekend. While the voracious handbags and acquisitive wallets were losing the will to hunt, while the sales assistants and shop managers were combing through the beach of commerce for last pickings of the day, in the limbo between the flo and ebb of the tide called shopping we slowly collided.

I don't know about her, but I should have been there six or seven hours earlier. At least. One can't expect the great British shopping public to continue parting with their cash when they're spent out - and exhausted. Lets face it 5:00 whether its am or pm is usually a crap time to start busking.

On this particular Saturday my plans to get the music out there early had been struck down by a particularly virulent attack of procrastination. Procrastination, seriously complicated by inertia. Although this city operates a street music scheme based around three hour sessions at specific pitches it doesn't seem to be all that rigorously enforced. Consequently artistes such as myself, if they've decided to give this struggling dorp one more try, need to be out and about early to get ahead of the queue.

The alternative being to wait till the one o'clock turn round. Which might or might not happen depending on how much of a foot-stamping little twerp you want to appear. To avoid the angst you need to be on your pitch by 10.00 am at the latest.

For me this means loading my amp onto the bike, stuffing the rucksack with leads, music stand, mp3 player for the backing tracks, harmonicas, screw drivers to rescue the harmonicas from falling apart mid performance if necessary and sheet music, then peddling the five flat miles into town.

I keep my £5 float, heavy on the larger denomination coins for purposes of encouragement, in a take-out container. I'm beginning to realise that a more visible, and maybe bigger, target might be more use to my generous listening public.

But then the whole process is a learning curve. You learn what the public like, how long to take between tunes, where to stand and how long to play for. You learn how important it is to stack up the goodwill with the other guys on the block and how to nod at the kids while still keeping the tune going when their parents send them over with coins in their tightly serious fists.

But the money's not what I do it for. Although the feeling that I've notched up enough liquidity to keep me afloat till way after stop tap is not unpleasant. 'Money for nothing and your pints for free,' to paraphrase Mark Knopfler. But I don't do it these days. The boozing that is. I might have occasionally got the money for it. I just don't have the liver.

No, why I'm a street musician is because I love it. I love getting down amongst the democracy and letting the music flow. Its a great way to practice for starters. Its not the Albert Hall but it is a performance. There is an audience so that unlike playing to myself in front of the computer where I can forgive the occasional dropped note or screwed up line, I need to get it right.

Actually the street audience is probably a lot less critical of my stuff than I am. There are those for whom my music is completely alien. For them I'm just some weird hippy type making a racket on a Saturday. They don't know the tunes so how can they tell when I've screwed one up?

They just keep walking. Fair enough. But there are those who stop and pay attention. They don't always pay into my fund, the tight bastards, but they reward me with the pleasure of being listened to. Sometimes they do contribute of course, with money or a word of appreciation. Or both. And sometimes I'll meet someone really interesting.

The last time I was out I became aware of Choo, a mainland Chinese national looking at me intently. Accompanied by his 10 year old son he videoed me as he walked round me. Then he waited till I had finished.

Then he remained silent. Maybe this was an etiquette issue? Whatever, I gave him a card and introduced myself. Although his English is better than my Mandarin there was no chance of a conversation. With his lad's help though I managed to understand his name, that he is a businessman and had been living in the city for a year.

Also he is a harmonica lover. Or as he titled his subsequent email 'harmonica lovers'. I gave him the benefit of the doubt on that one and suggested we meet for a coffee somewhere neutral the following week-end. The son to interpret.

So it was with Ms Melancholy. With all the sadness of an exile she fought her fear and moved closer to me. I held her hand. There were tears as she explained how a boy she had just seen fitting in the street reminded her of her brother. She had recognised my music and had responded.

I'm working on tango melodies. They're structured, elegant and perfect for the harmonica. Very few people in the city, apart from a few latino ex-pat friends, know what they are. But somehow they've caught my heart.

They've got into me so deeply that I've spent the last four years learning Spanish so I can talk to any Tango musicians I might meet. Ideally guitarists. My plan for this summer was to get to Spain, maybe to find a music connection but more purposefully to practice the language. I was looking at Galicia. I'd been told there wasn't much English spoken there. Good for me.

I'm ashamed to say that procrastination and inertia won again. I potched at this, buggered around at that, cared for my precious, ferocious nonagenarian mother and by the end of August hadn't got any part of my anatomy in gear. Game over for another year. Or so I thought.

I guess my dream must have got bored waiting and decided to come to find me.

You see Betsabé, Ms Melancholy's real name, lives in Galicia and is working hard to learn English. A perfect connect for me. We have spent hours since, wading through our own clumsy Spanglish - learning all the while.

Better still she is originally from Uruguay, not quite Argentina but close enough to make little musical difference and without the unfortunate political history. She knows loads about the music of her country. She has a lovely voice. Her mother is a tango singer and lives with her.

Of course its a coincidence. What else could it be?

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