Story and Images by Joyce Chen
She doesn’t ask for much – a smile, a tip of the hat, just a smidgen of respect for her craft. Large silver earrings glinting under dim lights, eyes closed with the kind of emotional energy fit for a stage diva, Juliana Lisk croons jazz into her microphone with all the self assurance of a veteran songstress, all the soul of a mature thespian mid-monologue.
Her striking Afro is pulled back away from her face with a simple band, a grey woolen coat standing out in stark contrast to her deep chocolate skin, revealing her wrists and the hands that hold her microphone so carefully. There is nothing showy about her dress or her demeanor, but the intensity with which she holds her small corner of the tube station warrants a second glance.
She’s in her own element.
Only the occasional soft thump of coins hitting her pail interrupts the smooth flow of song, her words gliding like spoken rhythms over the clatter of train tracks and the pattering of feet as people bustle to and fro around her.
London Underground’s stage may not be glamorous, with fluorescent lights glowing in place of a dramatic lounge spotlight, but it’s a stage filled with character – an integral part of London culture that more than justifies the location.
“The best thing about busking is undoubtedly the fact that you meet so many people, and through people you can get to know yourself,” Lisk said. “I would perform even if no one were listening, but because there are obviously people passing by me, listening to my songs, I feel like I’m working through them and hearing my own voice reflected back at me. I think it makes me a stronger singer.”
Lisk, who started busking in tube stations throughout London three months ago, explained that for her, busking is all about performance and contributing to a better London Underground culture.
“Some passersby really enjoy the performances because it gives them a lift in their day to hear you sing,” she said. “The best thing that’s ever happened to me is when a man who was passing by dropped flowers into my tin. It was unexpected and such a sweet gesture. People often stop to have a chat with me as well, which brightens my day because I feel as though I’ve made a small difference in theirs.”
Busking, the act of live performance in public spaces, has long been an iconic part of the London Underground scene, and though its presentation has changed, the very nature of the practice hasn’t. Once associated with homelessness or begging, busking in the heart of one of the world’s most diverse cities now means being a part of a close-knit, fully functioning music community.
Thelondonpaper and radio station Capital 95.8 are the official joint sponsors for all tube buskers, and Londoners familiar with the music and energy of underground performers are now also accustomed to the bold pink and purple areas that demark the boundaries of busking.
The decision to legitimize buskers and regulate the underground music scene came about four years ago, said Dean Haynes, the busking site manager at the Oxford Circus tube station. Buskers are now required to go through three-minute auditions to qualify for busking licences, and must perform a minimum of 60 pitches at smaller stations to prove their dedication before moving onto more popular tube locations. “Buskers now have to pay their dues before they’re able to advance to more coveted areas,” Haynes said. “It sets a certain standard for hopeful musicians, and this way, we’re also less prone to having illegal buskers in our hallways.”
With the changing system came a few complaints from veteran buskers concerning the negative impact these regulations could have on the community. Busking, by definition, is meant to be spontaneous, a showcase of artistic impulses in the public domain. However, Haynes noted that the sentiments are split 70/30, with the majority of buskers supporting the system.
“It’s a legitimate concern, that there are more buskers springing up all the time, but not more places for them to busk,” Haynes said. “Sure, there are certain buskers who are annoyed by the new rules because they’ve been doing this for ten or 15 years and are now being asked to audition. But for the most part, buskers are happy to go through the process because it legitimizes what they’re doing.”
Singers like Lisk said they find camaraderie in the support they receive from their peers, and added that aside from honing their skills, busking offers them the ultimate test as performers: total vulnerability at the mercy of the public.
Tashomi Balfour, a 19-year-old busker, understands the pressures of public performance all too well. He explained that he has become a very different performer than he was when he first started playing the saxophone in the underground a year ago, and attributed much of his improvement to the support he receives from the busking community.
“When I first started, there was a lot of fear involved,” he said. “I was overly concerned about a lot of people’s first impressions of me, how they would judge me because I was just a performer in a tube station. I worried about what my peers would think, because no one we knew was doing the kind of thing I was doing. But now, I know what I’m doing, I know why I’m here, and the fear is a thing of the past.”
Nowadays, Balfour, who stands tall at 6 feet, in baggy jeans and a white sports jacket, has shed his insecurities. He confidently performs approximately four hours a day and doesn’t flinch from the attention his lively saxophone-playing garners – good or bad.
“A lot of buskers play what others want to hear and not what they want to play, because whether they admit it or not, busking is still meant for the masses,” he said. “That’s not me, though. I play what I want to, because at the end of the day, I don’t want to spend two hours at a time, playing music I don’t even like. I feel like I play music because it’s what I’m passionate about, and if there happen to be people who appreciate it, all the better.”
Lisk’s mantra is no different. The command of her vocal prowess is strengthened not only by the occasional smile or coin, but by her own love for the music as well. As Londoners hurry on their way to work, to home, to the rest of their day, Lisk stands still, completely enveloped in her own little space of the Underground. Every time she busks is another chance for her to shine in the limelight before her own audience of one.
Want more information on busking? Check out thelondonpaper.com or their audition page.