The Busking Project Goes Global

40 cities, 30 countries, 5 continents, 10 months, 3 people, 1 ambitious goal: The first international documentary about buskers, or street artists. “There´s a fine line between stupidity and bravery”, project manager Chris Smith shows his typical british humor when talking about his creation, the The Busking Project (TBP). More than seven and a half months later, I met Chris, the American Belle Crawford (Artistic Director) and Mardy Malika Umilta from Singapore in a coffee shop in Bogotá.   The team has lived and worked together for seven and a half months 24/7, collecting more than 6 terabytes of footage. We discusses how they managed to survive this long without much privacy and why they are more passionate about busking than ever before.

TBP-Director Nick Broad is the “one to blame”: After working on the local busking website Undercover New York  and losing his job in public television, the idea occurred during dinner in May 2010: Why don´t we go international with Undercover New York?  And that´s what they did: Together with Chris Smith and Belle Crawford they searched Google, YouTube, and other websites and finally came up with 40 cities for their proposed 300 day tour.

 Magic Wallrush dancer, Calcutta India

One major desire was to be able to do as much as possible without flying.  A plan, which “started off well, but is deteriorating,” admits Chris.  “In the beginning, we thought it was possible without flying, that was why we were not in Australia. But at some time we were sacrificing the project to ‘green’ our trip, so we decided to take some essential flights. We still prefer to travel overland unless it’s bad for the documentary.” Long bus tours and boat trips are part of the journey – a challenge for Belle, who experiences motion sickness.

 Chris Smith filming Bahrupia in Gaskara, India

This is not the only challenge for the American and her colleagues: At events, through donations – also from buskers themselves – and of course with their own money, Nick, Chris and Bell scraped together the funds for the expedition – costs including food, visas, equipment, vaccinations and website expenses.  This said, luxury travel this be not.  “Maybe we paid four times for our accommodation within the past seven months,” says Belle.  The team stays with ‘Couchsurfers’ and other friendly locals who offer their space for free.

 Bejo, Street Performing Monkey in Jakarta, Indonesia

“Couchsurfing was our savior for the project,” says Chris.   Through Couchsurfing, they also got in touch with street artists from time to time.  “My most important question is: Do you have wifi?“ Couchsurfing and working at the same time is hard. ”Sometimes you stay with college students who love to party,” explains Belle.  “And  [sometimes] you have been walking around all day and[just want to] pass out on the couch…The only privacy we have is in the shower!”

“[At one point] during the trip, I was one foot out of the door,” says Belle, “but I am glad I did not leave. Now I am a member of a global community, I made significant connections with our hosts and performers and feel like have friends all over the world.”

Bahrupia in Gaskara, India

It’s the artists they meet which pay off all the effort; The Busker-family in San Francisco for example, with their family history of street performers, who show their technically skilled performance on the streets and are fully committed to their lifestyle. Or the “Birds man“, who they knew from YouTube before they started their project and happened to find in an alley way in Rome. He was playing music, had his costume of a hat, a peak and curly white hair and is truly a  mythical creature with his trolls voice.  Or “Great Dave” and his wife: A couple in Scotland who live like normal people, but make their living as street performers. Or an artist in Greece who got married, quit her 9 – 5 office job to live in a caravan with her fire spinning husband.She now feels more financially secure because if they cannot make money in one city, they just go to another.

Dawn Monette, Contact juggler, Vancouver, Canada

Some communities think that street performers wouldn’t be on the streets if they were actually talented – according to Chris this stigma still exists in some cultures.  In Asia street performers are less supported – both socially and financially, while in Europe, the team has met the most professional artists on the streets. “I was amazed that you can do it and get so much money,” admits Belle,”a couple of musicians earned money in Japan and moved back and bought a house in London.”   In the US people are able to earn quite a bit with busking as well.

Zazi and Tukie, Fire Spinners in Bangkok, Thailand

Zazi and Tukie, Fire Spinners in Bangkok, Thailand

Buskers get a dedicated place in Seoul where they can play but are not allowed to make tips (the government collects money for them!), and the art is forbidden in several countries, such as Spain. The Busking Project could feel these differences – for example, not every busker reacts positively to getting filmed.  “What do I get out of this?” was a response as well, says Chris, and “many have been exploited so many times in the past, are hyper-protective of how they are used now.”  In many places they were asked to stop filming.  All in all, it went extremely well: “It’s luck and how professional you look,” says Chris with a wink, “and luckily we don’t look very professional.”

Giganteria Performers, Havana, Cuba

In January 2012 The Busking Project will end for Belle, Nick, Chris and the other three additional team members, Mardy, Dawn and Giles.  The last stop will be Rio de Janeiro.  Afterward, it’s time for post-production, to make a documentary of the amazing footage they have. “Post-Production is going to be a nightmare,” says Chris, “Nick is optimistic and naive and thinks it takes five months, we think it takes about three years.  There is enough material for a narrative film, TV-series and the website, which is planned as an information platform for buskers all around the globe.”

“In reality the attempt to do the project with three people was impossible.  It was too much work even if you work 24 hours a day. We would have needed a team of at least 5 or 6 people from the start, but this would require more financing. We are first time filmmakers, we have to prove ourselves. Now we can apply for sponsorships. We dove right in. Maybe we should have made a documentary of cows and sheep first and then moved on to an international project,” muses Chris.  “Next time, we’ll make it over 3 years and take breaks,” says Belle at the end, “but now we are looking forward to simple things like a kitchen and having control about the food you eat, having a rhythm to life again.”

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You can also donate to help The Busking Project, here.

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