Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Seekers: Busking in Philadelphia

-- Courtesy Jeff Metzner/

Planted in front of a rusted statue in Rittenhouse Park, Philip De Genova wipes a maple seed from his brow and then continues to play, coaxing soft whistles from a wooden flute. He cleans sweat from his disc-shaped glasses and then turns one of the wrinkled sheets on his music stand, singing as he goes so the rhythm never breaks. “La da di daaaaaa, bada da baaaaa…”

At 67-years-old, Phil is like the grandfather of Philadelphia’s “buskers”, a term for people who perform in the streets, or underground, or anywhere in public, really. Phil is delicate, seasoned, and reflective. He wears long silvery hair and a puffy mustache. You can find him busking around the city everyday, but only for the last couple years. He spent seven before that studying Philosophy and Theology in Rome, stifled in the Catholic order’s orchestra.

“They didn’t like it when I played what I wanted,” he says, pressing one eye against the end of his flute, examining it like a telescope. “They wanted me to play their stuff.” So Phil camped under the Ponte Sant’ Angelo bridge instead, near the Vatican. Because the bridge’s tubular shape mimics the flute’s, Phil relished performing there. “The sound was perfect,” he beams.

“I never used to put out the basket [in Rome],” he says nodding to an open flute case strewn with dollars. “And if people gave me money I’d give it to the homeless that used to hang around the river.” But when he came home in 2008, Phil started playing at the local concourse and put out a basket for donations. “As soon as someone put a dollar in there, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’” He laughs. “Now I don’t even think twice about it…it pays all my bills…I don’t even go to the bank anymore.”

Phil considers the money a gratuity, a way for people to tell him that they like what he’s doing, and he should keep doing it. But not everyone agrees, like the man who works on the third floor of the high-rise that faces his corner of the park. “He would call the police every day on me,” Phil says. Eventually, Phil suggested to the police that the man was abusing their system and they stopped accepting his complaints. But that wasn’t the end of it. “One day…he came down…and he started to berate me, so I just looked at him, “cuz I don’t get involved in people’s negativity, y’know…” he says, sweeping away the air with the back of his hand. He lifts the flute to his mouth, twittering lightly.

Sometimes when Phil’s down at the local concourse, he gets pestered by kooks and the homeless. “I don’t get a thick skin, “ he says, shaking his head. “But I do learn to let it bounce off. That works better than having a thick skin…that interferes with the music.” Whenever Phil gets into a topic he doesn’t like, he’ll break eye contact, drift off for a moment, and retreat into his flute. Phil will admit to certain gripes — he hates being muffled by the leaf-blowers in the park and he stiffens when he talks about his time with “the Catholics” in Rome. He’ll quickly try to dismiss it all, to keep the air clean for his music, but some things always reappear. When Phil explains that any familiar “Catholic” tunes you hear are borrowed from the Protestants, he adds, “But I have to be careful talking about certain things."

Today Phil is playing oriental melodies, his favorite. Their tone is pastoral and proud, but with sadness underneath. Phil’s in touch lately with a couple of Chinese artists as potential collaborators, particularly with a woman who plays the erhu, a two-string fiddle resembling a homemade vacuum cleaner. “A warm natural sound,” he says. “Perfect for the flute.” Phil’s not sure what will become of it all, but either way he’s not looking to make waves in the music world this late in the game. He just enjoys sharing his gift now, unencumbered — he hasn’t taken orders since his late-50’s army stint. Phil’s content living a monastic life, quiet and solitary, the way he was trained. “…We’re all loners,” he says of the busking community. “Almost all of us.”

Phil doesn’t seem to know what the “young’ns” are up to. For many 20 or 30-somethings, busking is a networking tool, a way to meet people and expose their music like the greats who started in the streets. Woodie Guthrie, Eric Clapton, and even Rod Stewart all spent their early days performing around their hometowns. Tracy Chapman scored a record deal when she was discovered in the street by a student whose father ran a label. Buskers even look to Ben Franklin, who used to perform his own poetry and prose despite his father’s discouragement. Franklin’s journals reveal that the struggles he faced performing then bred many of his later writings on the importance of free speech.

Networking musicians tend to know each other, especially if they play the same genre. Most of the jazz players, for instance, know Jafar (pronounced: Yah-fer) Barron, a 38-year-old jazz musician whose family is tied up in Philly’s music history. His brother, Farid, plays piano for the avant-garde Sun Ra Arkestra and has recorded with modern jazz master Wynton Marsalis, a friend of his from high school. Jafar himself is featured on the first albums of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. He’ll mumble these things to you right when you meet him — “Yo, you got Jill Scott’s first album?”— and he’ll also try to sell you his sharpie-marked CDs for $10 each. “Around Philly music, everybody knows him,” says Jared Sloan, a local photographer who likes to hang around Jafar.

Jafar doesn’t stick to one spot in the park, but today he’s jamming on the bench with his buddy, 50-year-old Anthony Mohammad, whom Jafar calls the “Brooklyn Bomber.” Mohammad is playing the cajón, an Afro-Peruvian box drum that looks like a wooden crate with a hole on one side. “They come as big as pianos,” Mohammad tells me, arms stretched out. “Big as what you can play.” Eyes closed, head shaking, then swaying, his fingers bounce off the rectangular crate to a hollow beat. Jafar waits a moment, watches Anthony’s style, and then blows life into his shiny cornet.

Jafar’s khakis are rolled up at the ankles, and he’s wearing red suspenders. A beige newsboy cap frames his round face, casting a shadow over his mustache and a thin goatee. Finding Jafar’s corner in the park is like discovering the cool-kid table in the cafeteria. “Hey Iz!” Jafar slaps hands with another passerby, shoots the breeze for a couple minutes. Jafar calls everybody “Iz”, so it’s hard to guess how he knows anyone. Actually, Jafar himself probably doesn’t remember how he knows any of them.

Jafar could easily have been that kid in back of the classroom who kept failing papers because he couldn’t use their words to answer the question, who never kept close relationships with any of his classmates unless they were also eccentric. Now, it’s rare to find him playing at the park without someone perched nearby eating lunch, reaching out to pound his fist after each song.


The sun’s out today, but it’s cooler now than it’s been. Phil’s back in his spot, tapping one foot while he gently glides the flute back and forth across his lips. There are only a handful of people reading on some benches nearby, but Phil is very focused. He’s doing improv on a jazz standard, trying to find just the right harmony.

Phil’s got a bit of a different setup today because of the wind. Behind him there’s a crate full of music and a water thermos strapped tightly to a cart. His hair is stuffed into a cotton newsboy cap. An orange pin, the one you get for paying admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is clipped onto one side. “I put it on so people can say, “Oh, were you at that show’?” He’s talking about the show they’re advertising all over town: Picasso and Avante-Garde in Paris – February 2-May 2, 2010. “Because I wanna clear somethin’ up about that show,” he says. “It’s not a Picasso. But it’s a very good show. They use the Picasso name to draw people. It’s a cubism show. Not enough [Picasso] to just justify puttin’ it in between the pillars, or they should at least have said Picasso and Cubism or something.” Does it bother you, though, personally? “Oh yeah, not enough to…But as an artist, as a former teacher, a person who’s well versed enough to know that they should know better… there’s enough deception I think in the world without our art museum adding to it. But it doesn’t bother me, no.”

Jafar waddles over with his trumpet case. He’s wearing a tweed suit jacket today over mismatched, layered t-shirts. He has wreaked some measure of deliberate anarchy on his facial hair. Long tufts sprout from only the middle of his chin and the sides of his mustache – the rest is stubble. Phil wants to show off his latest investion – a stand for his flute. “I found a new one, Jaf. See what I did?” “Yeah, yeah,” Jafar responds.

Phil starts to explain where every part came from, why it’s more stable than the ones you find in stores. “This goes to a lamp,” he says, “and this I found a week before. And then, I found a bolt. And I had to make the bolt real hot on the stove, and there’s a plastic housing there, see? (‘Yeah, Yeah,’ Jafar says) I got the pliers and PTCHHH, burnt the bolt into the plastic (‘Ah, cool’). And then, this is from a bicycle, I guess. I used that to clamp the plastic and the bolt (‘Yeah’) with some superglue to be sure it’s gonna hold…and that baby holds. So they’re all found objects from the street (‘Thas good, man’). And it works. That actually ends up being a work of art. It’s called bric-oh-lahge, and I would be the bric-oh-leur...”

Phil has taken up a new, faux-“street” tone around Jafar. It might seem mocking, racist even, but it’s just Phil’s way of showing that he knows how to talk to different types of people, that he gets it. “Now do you like my new hat?” he asks Jafar, who’s wearing a baby blue Kangol today. (‘Thas cool, man…’) “You haven’t commented on it. You walked right on by.” (‘Nah, nah, I…’) I Just got it, it was made in Chiiiinah.” (‘You’re wearin’ it wrong, man’) “Oh yeah?” Jafar starts centering the hat. “I put a pin in there.” (‘Thas a cool hat, man. Maybe just front and center’) He sturdies it onto Phil’s scalp. “Yeah, he’s going for symmetry with me,” Phil tells me. “Because he knows that I’m a symmetrical sort of a guy.”

But you’re not like that, right, Jafar? ‘Cuz jazz is all about improvisation.
“Nah, see, everybody’s gettin’ into preconceived notions,” Jafar says in his deeply nasal voice. “Every jazz musician is for all good music….have you ever heard of Charlie Parker? All the song and the improvisation is very mathematical, I mean it is improvised, but the imp-, improvise is intelligent, the improvis—, it’s not just like, extemporaneously speaking, knowwhatimsayin, it’exs almost like that, if you speak extemporaneously on uh, let’s say about, the green of this tree…you can’t talk about the sky is blue, you know, too…unless it has somethin’ to do with the green of the tree. Another example is Thelonious Monk. His music is very, uh uh uh, logical, you know uh uh, and I wouldn’t say asymmetrical, but symmetrical.” So there’s a foundation. “Yeah, come on.” So…are you going to play for us tod—? “We’ll see…gotta go…peace.” Jafar throws up two fingers, and he’s gone.

Buskers are sensitive to language; they resent the connotations of certain words like “solicitation” or “panhandling”. Phil takes offense at being called a “street musician”. “I’m a busker, a troubadour,” he says, shaking his fist at the air. Busker is a term that comes from the Spanish “buscar”, to seek. What it is that they’re seeking, well, that’s a tough question, and the answer varies with each person. But what unites them, the thing that makes them the same no matter what, is the fact that they bother with the search in the first place.

Phil shoves a cleaner, a stick with a frayed rag attached, into his flute. He shoves it far down so that it can reach all the condensation. “Speaking of people trying to control you,” he says, though we hadn’t been. Phil tells me about a guy the other day who asked him to play religious music, and then didn’t stick around to hear it. The guy apologized the next day, but the damage had been done. “I said ‘I played what you asked me to and I turned around and you weren’t there’. He said, ‘Well can you do it again?’ I said okay. So he goes over to the bench, I play one song, and he gets on the cell phone. So I said the hell with it and I put the religious tunes away and went back to what I wanted to do. I’m resolved that that’s the last time that I’ll ever let that happen to me.”

Phil thinks he knows why it happened. “See, because you’re here, because you’re public, people really think they have a right to some of you. And they have a right to say or do what they please.” Phil is into another one of those topics again. He’s beginning to drift. His brows furrow and he veers over to his music stand. It’s scrawny, but reliable. He notices a young woman holding a porcelain-skinned, cherry-lipped baby girl.

“Hello. How are you?” Phil’s tone softens. The baby’s green eyes scan him. “Is that your little daughter there? She’s liking music, isn’t she? Maybe she wants to hear a little quiet song.” Phil approaches the baby, playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It’s not his favorite music, not the most sophisticated, for sure, but Phil feels like playing it right now; it’s the perfect antidote to a downward spiral of thought.


For a lot of Philly buskers, negativity wears a uniform. Since the park’s wealthy patrons live in the surrounding area, cops have always taken complaints pretty seriously. Musicians would get booted from the park all the time, though it’s improved slightly since 2001, when a cop arrested jazz legend Byard Lancaster for performing in front of a WaWa on 17th and Arch, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article. SEPTA had to pay Lancaster $15,000 in damages (and $18,000 more a year later when he was arrested again, in July).

Lancaster made as much noise as he could. A resolution was passed in appreciation of Lancaster and Philadelphia buskers who “should be allowed to express themselves to others through their music and other performing arts.” Lancaster has the resolution posted on his website under the self-authored headline: “Byard Arrested? Music is Liberating!” Lancaster is certainly not shy about any of it. “Byard considers himself a champion of the people,” says Bret Cohen, a Philly drummer who apprenticed with him for a while.

After Lancaster’s case, things stayed quiet until a few years ago, when 20-year-old Anthony Riley was arrested and thrown in a cell for 18 hours because the police didn’t want him singing in the park. According to the Inquirer’s article, he was midway into Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” when police cuffed him. The media milked the irony, to say the least. Riley won his suit with the help of a lawyer called Evan Shingles. “Is everybody gonna be lucky enough to be playing a politically charged song, no, but it shouldn’t have to come to that,” Shingles says.

Since then, Shingles remains a great friend to the busking community; he helped Phil and some others fight off detractors just last year with sheer intimidation. “If you don’t wanna hear that kind of noise, then maybe you shouldn’t be living in the city,” he says. When Center City cops heard Shingles was getting involved, they called him just to tell him they were backing down. “We’re not allowed to bother them anymore,” says Sergeant Heisenroth of the ninth district.

But Riley still gets bothered, like last week when he was playing in front of the convention center on 15th and Market. “The sergeant came out…and said that I didn’t have a right to be here,” Riley says. He’s clean-shaven and his collared shirt is tucked into his pants. “So I informed him about my constitutional right. He said that even so I need a permit… Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to the Streets Department, License and Inspection, I’ve been to councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s office…but all those places are telling me that they are no license or permits for street musicians.”

A day after Riley’s arrest, Felix Wilkins, a 66-year-old street musician who’s played with 20th century jazz giants Count Basie, Tito Puente, and Mongo Santamaria was handcuffed for playing the flute on 18th and Chestnut. According to the Inquirer, he won the case, and $27,500 in damages, with the help of Paul Messing, the lawyer who also defended Lancaster in 2001. Now you can find Felix wobbling around Suburban Station with his battered old flute, pining for a drink.

Phil De Genova has known Felix a while now, and is always trying to help him fix up his flute. “But I can’t even get him to my repair guy,” he says. “It’s a struggle for him to actually make it to the train.” On days when Felix manages to wrangle a drink, he’ll play a few screechy tunes near the ticket machines until he gets kicked out for being overly unpleasant.

SEPTA’s been cracking down lately at Suburban Station and Market East, where they require musicians to play at designated performance zones. If artists stray more than 12 feet, officials can boot them from the station. Actually, there are 24 more ways that underground musicians can go wrong, and they’re all listed on the flyer that SEPTA’s been handing out these last few months.


Underground musicians know these 26 commandments by heart; they have to. Not so for authorities roaming the stations. Or maybe it’s that they know, but they hope that the person they’re threatening doesn’t know. John King, an overweight black man with under-eye circles darker than his skin, says he reminds officials all the time that he’s allowed to be singing – he has a permit and everything. With most jobs turning him down because they see his failing health as too much of a liability — he has congestive heart failure and minor psychological issues — King makes $30 on a good day, and needs all of it to live. Somehow, King keeps a sense of humor. When he sees me watching him and taking notes, he yells: “What are you, action news? Hah hah!”

King has always loved to sing. He grew up in Georgia with his Protestant church choir — “Jeeeezuuuuhs luv me, yes I knowww”, he sings in a child’s voice, then laughs with one hand on his belly. “I was Pentecostal. It was a little too s-strict so I went over to Baptist, then I went over to nondenominational because I believe in the Bible and I just leave it like that.” He apologizes for his stained undershirt, explains that he’s on his way to the gym. He also says that his nephews, who work all around Center City, can hear his singing. “I got a loud, strong voice…Thas how they find me…They say ‘Oh thas Uncle John!’” he says.

If he isn’t busking, King is singing at his church on 43rd. He lives his life by the Bible, which he’ll quote for any situation. When he talks about omitting health concerns from job applications, he quickly notes that David and Abraham were liars, too.

Down in Charleston, where King lived for a time, he would perform at a bunch of venues. “…I was at some kind of big club there and I sung Amazing Grace and some of them white people there they start runnin’ towards the stage,” King laughs, burying his head in his neck. “They was comin’ and haha! But they were just cryin’, they just loved it,” he says. He tells me about the time they sung “Amazing Grace” to the tune “House of the Rising Sun”. “You know it was like, ‘Dowww, dow dowwww, dow dowww’ and then I went, ‘Amaaaaazing graaaaace, how sweeeet the souuuuund, that saved, a wretch, like meeeee. I once, was lost, but nowww, I’m found…” And God, I know I’m one…

King is sad lately because his wife left him — “That’s why certain songs I can’t sing without cryin’” — but he trusts that God knows what he’s doing. “The Bible say, ‘How can two people walk together ‘cept they agree…’” King’s trials haven’t made him angry. His wife may have left him cold, but he’s never felt abandoned by his maker. “If you love God, and you find out that God love people, then you gotta join in with him.”


Jafar and Mohammad are jamming on a bench at the park. It’s hard to hear the harmony in the lazy wines of Jafar’s cornet and the cool thumping of Mohammad’s cajón, but others seem to. A small crowd has already gathered. Jafar stops playing to chat with someone. Eventually, though, Mohammad starts sporadically tapping, and then gets into it some more, and then his eyes close and his neck starts rolling around and Jafar sees him, and then says to the guy, “Yo, yo, ma man’s playin’” and grabs his cornet again.

Mohammad’s jeans are cuffed like Jafar’s and he’s wearing black. A durag is tied tightly around his shaved skull and topped by a dark straw hat. Mohammad speaks like a preacher, slowly and with lofty intent. “I play…” he says, “to enlighten someone to something new that they didn’t know before they encountered me.” He hopes to pass down the wisdom he has gained over the years from “many elders who walked the same path.” “None of these streets are untouched with their footprints,” he says.

When Mohammad talks about his “elder brethren”, he’s referring to Philadelphia music masters he knew as a kid, older mentors who taught him how to play and how to live. “I’m guided by these principles, but I also recognize that that though there’s supposed to be no four-leaf-clover, there is,” Mohammad rhapsodizes. He’s just launched into some improv poetry. “That though, in that trash-room lot, a tulip grows. That though, sometimes the blue sky turns red…”

Mohammad has a pretty active Facebook profile for someone so esoteric, although he seems to use it as a forum for preaching, so that his poetry might reach a larger audience. April 9, 6:04 a.m.: “Friday Nights ! I crave City Lights! Sounds of the Street ! and something good to Eat ! Time to open the Shoe Box for the Crocs and Dress Socks ! Breaking out , like the Birdman of Alcatraz !......100 % for the Love Of Jazz ! ! !...and the remaining 10 % for the Love of _ _ _! (SMILE)”


Most buskers camp at the park on a sunny day, but John King stays at Suburban so he’ll have less competition. As for the restrictions, he’ll take what he can get. “I would like to know why they’re doin’ it…you know it’s always a reason why people do things.” King wants to go back down to South Carolina to hook up with a rock and roll band he knows and try to make a name for himself. “You know needmo?” he asks, straight-faced. I’m at a loss. “Need mo’ money!” he says, and then keels over into a chesty laugh.

Today, King is performing the same song that Anthony Riley was singing when he got arrested. “Oh there have been taaaahhhhms,” King belts, eyes shut tight and skyward. “That I thought I couldn’t last for very loooooong. But now I think I’m able, I think I’m able, to carry ooooon.” He exhales.


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