In the streets of Red Deer you might get a few rogues strumming on a guitar and Edmonton’s Fringe Festival can bring some cool cats to town, but there is no city in the world that brings street performers together like London.
Power ballads resonate through the underground stations from some wee thing with nothing but an amp and microphone; full string quartets collect in market street corners while meandering shoppers stroll past; contortionists crawl into boxes in the middle of a ring of pedestrians; sword swallowers stand on café tables; break dancers slide, flip and somersault down major streets; mystics, magicians, card readers and more gather in London to perform in a city where a big reputation can mean a very big break.
A day in central London always promises to be entertaining, occasionally bizarre, and often educating. A recent visit to London’s ever-thriving Covent Garden informed me that the sheng, or the Chinese mouth organ, is one of the oldest wind instruments and serves for excellent study, reading or meditation music. My iTunes collection has since made a worldly expansion.
Street performers employ a variety of different tactics. Some gather an audience with anecdotal jokes or crude exultations, while some begin their performance quietly like a master of their art who needs no introduction.
Cartoon artists often draw the outline of your rudely exaggerated facial features before you even cross their easel. Quick-witted performers with a natural ease for conversation might hand pick their audience by chatting with individuals they think will appreciate their show.
But on a particularly sunny day, especially in the summer, street performers need little preparation to draw in a crowd. Despite the late snowfalls in Alberta this year, London has been blessed with an equally anomalous blast of sunshine.
April rains have given way early for 20-degree temperatures and clear blue skies, meaning out-of-towners and Londoners alike are embracing the weather and venturing out into the city. And when there’s good weather, there are great street acts.
Last weekend I met friends along the Thames. We chose to catch up near Waterloo where the London Eye is located along with a selection of riverside restaurants.
It had just gone midday and already I was struggling to make a path through the mob of people, most of whom were joining one crowd or another to catch a snapshot of the free afternoon entertainment.
What’s most impressive (or at least as impressive as the incredible acts) is the performers’ stamina.
After a prolonged lunch, I returned down the Thames path with my friends and we joined the growing masses surrounding the same performers whose acts I had narrowly slid past hours before. They were all gearing up for their fourth, fifth, sixth set of the day and building up the scene just as they had done for their previous observers.
We stopped for several minutes to watch one boy put on a spectacular beatboxing show.
He wore jeans and a hoodie, which hung loosely off his small frame, and he sat on his amp in a relaxed manner. No older than 16, microphone in hand, his voice box his only instrument, he brought recognizable songs by the likes of Lady Gaga, Snoop Dog and a variety of house and dance djs to life.
He made only minor interjections between songs but spoke comfortably and worked the crowd like an expert. Hard to believe he was just a kid — but a kid with a great talent and a fine future for the next decade if he keeps his larynx in decent shape.
We cruised through the rest of the acts: a breakdance group performing a tribute piece to Michael Jackson with a worthy effort at moonwalking, a mystic hippie with a sphere that appeared to follow his motion without touch, and the odd still-life actor or actress whose skill it was to stay perfectly motionless for hours on end (although I have often wondered what would happen if someone took off with their cap full of hard-earned coins).
We moved onward past the action and under the Hungerford railway bridge — the regular site of an artist who spends her hours painting near identical replicas of famous artworks by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
There is always a grungy yet beautiful atmosphere beneath that bridge, the artist’s unfaltering concentration suited to the site of rare stillness along the Thames.
Our conversation softened as we strolled by to the rhythm of a saxophonist’s sultry tones.
Brittany Kennedy grew up in Red Deer and graduated from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. She attended university in Scotland and is now living and working in London, England.