One of the high points of my musical year occurred outside a London Sainsbury's, where I was transported to the American South by a young man with an electric guitar and a truly Orphic touch. Another was thanks to a Romanian clarinet-and-accordion duo who hopped on to my train at Leicester Square, hopped off at King's Cross, and in between played Viennese classics with impeccable panache. They couldn't stay to talk; they just took our money and ran. You find such people everywhere on the Underground, plucking and blowing in corridors or at the base of escalators, boldly ignoring the orders to stop that blare from loudspeakers above their heads.
Many buskers work alone, but some hunt in packs. In the interests of science, I watch a succession of such groups in that neat little open- air theatre formed by one of the sunken courtyards in the Covent Garden Piazza.
First to take their stand behind the semicircle of brass studs - busking here is strictly policed - is a string group led by an Irish bassist- clown who achieves miracles of audience participation without once overstepping the magic line. Next comes a string quartet that wouldn't be out of place at the Wigmore Hall. Then come two singers announcing themselves as Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi, who deliver a non-stop feast of Mozart and Puccini while taking it in turns to dash round with the begging bowl, before finishing with a luxurious rendering of the "Flower Duet" from Lakhme.
They seem a boldly convivial bunch, but cameras and notebooks make them instantly uneasy. While some are studying at the London conservatories, others are "resting" professionals whose chances at audition might, they say, be threatened if their busking came to light. They are also understandably loth to say what they earn, though pounds 60 a day seems the average: not terrible, but not easy money for singers who must bust a gut to be heard unamplified. Sometimes, says Tebaldi, wonderful things happen: last Christmas they found two tightly folded pounds 50 notes at the bottom of the bowl. Sutherland has this job to thank for meeting the man she is about to wed, but they won't busk connubially; you can't marry a voice and a violin.
Many of the string-players here are Chinese. One of the violinists in the Wigmore-standard quartet is a Hong Kong engineering draughtsman named Kai Choi, who is the founder/ co-ordinator of an unusual organisation. Sigma consists of a floating population of anything between 30 and 60 players, whom Choi directs wherever there is either an opportunity or - in the case of private parties - demand. Choi admits that giving up his designing career was initially a risk, and that it took time to find collaborators with the right combination of qualities, for musicians are by nature perfectionists, and busking requires a thick skin plus a theatrical ability to "project". In the beginning he lugged a huge box of sheet music to every gig, but he soon realised what the public wanted, and found that it went over better if played from memory. He modestly eschews the virtuous guff that musicians usually use to describe their "outreach" aims, but outreach this is, and of the best possible kind.
When I ask what sort of living this game provides, he winces. "Let's call it a way of life." A stable way? "Not really. There are now so many groups that the ecosystem has been destroyed." A year ago there were so many players competing for the available cash that some gave up and went elsewhere. Only the toughest survive.
But some go on to great things. After 20 years' slog, the Cambridge flautist Michael Copley has won serious fame with his Classic Buskers group. Nigel Kennedy used to busk, as did many other pillars of the musical establishment. Brian Hawkins, head of strings at the Royal College of Music, supports it unconditionally. "It's excellent experience. I used to do it, and I'm pleased when my students do so. It takes bottle."
HAWKINS AND his friends deserve an accolade this week for responding to this column's recent appeal on behalf of the beleaguered music students in Tirana. There is a desperate shortage of sheet music in Albania's arts academy, and a total absence of decent instruments; several conservatoires at the richer end of Europe are now laying plans to ship out their cast- off violins and cellos, plus some of the barrow-loads of scores that are regularly bequeathed to them. Anyone wanting to make direct contact with the academy should write to its vice-rector, Bujar Sykja, c/o Arts Academy, Tirana, or fax him on 00 355 422 5488.
There is yet another conduit for those who want to lend a hand, in the form of a trust set up by June Emerson, a music publisher. The Albanian Musicians' Trust (Windmill House, York YO6 4HF) helps pay for scholarships for outstanding young musicians, and tries to mitigate the havoc that political anarchy has wrought in their early education. To get into the mood, listen to two marvellous CDs of Albanian music that have just been released. Albanian Village Music (Heritage HTCD40) consists of dances recorded in Tirana in the Thirties, and Folk Music of Albania (Topic TSCD904), collected in the Sixties, contains songs which, to Western ears, sound ravishingly strange.