Turn most corners in Dublin, and you’ll bump into a guitarist, or a harpist, or a drummer, or a guy who has wheeled his full-size grand piano into the bustling streets. Busking is a highly respected art-form in Ireland. It’s the soundtrack to a city, a culture with no hierarchy – if you have a guitar, you can play, and let the people be your judge. It’s a way to let your own light shine, no matter who you are. That’s not to say we don’t take it very seriously, it’s an important thread of our cultural fabric, and as such, we fight to the hilt to protect its credibility.
Even if talent comes second to enthusiasm, passion or an aching thirst to sing, Ireland’s streets are lined with an army of gifted musicians. There must be something in the water. There is a handful that flew the nest, becoming international musical icons, but they’ve never forgot how much they owe to Dublin’s cobbled streets. They respect Ireland’s biggest stage and the people that grace it everyday, and if you love a city, why not serenade it?
Maybe busking’s favourite son, Hansard quit school at an early age to pursue a life of music. He started busking at 14, after a teacher with a shared love of music suggested Glen should take some time out from school to earn his musical chops busking on the streets. “Five years on Grafton Street was the only education I ever needed”, and within 5 years, he had formed The Frames, a band made up of street musicians, and soon his life was a musical fairy-tale. 2006 was the year of his charming film ‘Once’, a film about the arts of busking, love and friendship. Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film was a huge indie-hit, blasting him to fame and a slot at the 2008 Oscars. A Graton Street busker playing the biggest show in Hollywood, who’d have thought it?
"If you ask me what success looks like, it’s a bunch of lads who are happy and comfortable in their skin, touring the world and playing their music to people who want to hear it and feeling like they've got nobody to answer to. And the rest is gravy.”
Damien Rice was a late starter, only taking to the streets after the break-up of his band Juniper, busking through Europe and working as a farmer in Tuscany. On his travels, he used to sing for his supper, a couple of hours busking paying for room and board for one more night. He tells a story of a day busking in Scotland, where he played and played, but nothing came in. It started raining and he took shelter under a windowsill, slumped and defeated, hunched over his guitar humming half-words to himself. The money started pouring in, £2 coin after £2 coin, and on it went.
“It was quite surreal. When I played for them they ignored me. When I played for me they paid me even though they could hardly hear what I was doing in the midst of writing a song, mumbling to myself. Perhaps there’s a message in there, or maybe that was just Elgin on a rainy day.”
RODERIGO Y GABRIELLA
Mexico City metal kids turned Dublin busking legend isn’t exactly the most common of musical paths, but the Mexican duo have carved out a huge fan base from their days in Temple Bar. After they fell out of love with the Mexico metal scene, a friend told the two of Dublin’s reputation as the spiritual home of street performance, a haven for acoustic music, so they packed their 6-strings and off they went, musical pilgrims on a four year journey of street training. They set up in Dublin with two acoustic guitars, their metal axes not suited to the streets, and through necessity and experimentation, developed a sound with the speed of heavy metal and the beauty of flamenco. It took them a few years and journeys to Barcelona through Denmark to find their fame, but back in Dublin, their 2006 self-titled album debuted at number 1 in the Irish album charts and lead to a US record deal and international stardom. The rest, they say, es historia.
"We experienced what it was like to play on the street and it made us really learn a lot as musicians, I think that's the best kind of learning - the ones where you really need to learn concentration in order to keep your ego down"
Mundy is a local boy. Just up the road from Tullamore, in a small town called Birr, the songwriter used to make the trip to Dublin to peddle his sound and sing for Grafton Street. Dublin’s ‘biggest stage’ is where he met the drummer of Dublin locals ‘Dragonfly’, who would later becoming his backing band. His days were filled with busking and the nights filled with open-mic, those minstrel days leading to his single ‘To You I Bestow’ being included on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which sold 11 million copies. Platinum records later, and Mundy’s still on the road.
Now sadly passed, Mic Christopher was another musician who learnt his trade on the streets of Dublin. He began at 15 and solidly busked for five years, first on banjo and then on guitar, becoming a true part of the Dublin street music inner circle, crossing paths with Glen Hansard among others. The two became great friends, busking together across the globe. He’s best know for his first and only solo album, Skylarkin’, an incomplete posthumous offering which was put together by friends and family based on old recording and instructions from Mic on how to improve them. The album won a 2003 Meteor Award, which his family collected on his behalf. Mic Christopher’s influence on the busking fraternity is wide reaching, Hansard, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, they’ve all dedicated songs, album and performances to the late king of the Irish busk. Perhaps more than any, Mic represents the true nature of Irish busking; the love for a craft, the DIY attitude, the passion for music, the happiness and above all, the camaraderie that emanates in the Dublin busking ‘family’.
“I so miss being a busker. Everything about it made you feel brilliant. The camaraderie or something, I don’t know. You were doing it for yourself, there were no deadlines, no shit, fun all the way.”
And there they are, the kings and queens of Irish busking. They may have outgrown the streets, but their roots are still firmly planted in Grafton and Temple Bar. It was their education, where they cut their teeth and developed their sound. For many of these former buskers, the streets of Dublin are the biggest and best stage they will ever grace.
Photo c/o - Flickr's Identity Photogr@phy