Do Britain's buskers have ideas above their station?

'The South Bank Show' is to showcase the talents of the capital's street musicians. Do they merit it? Robert Hanks reviews five performances.
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Traditionally, busking has been the province of toothless old men with penny-whistles and annoying students trying to sound like Bob Dylan and succeeding all too well. But in recent years, busking has been making strides towards respectability.

The establishment of a licensing system on the London Underground, allowing buskers who pass an audition to play at defined locations, has done a lot to reduce the irritation factor and drive musical standards up; the fact that Melvyn Bragg has deemed it worthy of attention on The South Bank Show is another feather in busking's cap - or a nail in its coffin, if you prefer your music raw and unprocessed.

Two other factors seem to have contributed to a rise in busking standards in recent years. One is an influx of highly competent musicians from the former Soviet bloc, for whom busking represents an economically attractive option; the other, perversely, is that the money is not as good as it used to be - at least, that is what every busker I spoke to yesterday maintained. A consequence of this has been to drive out many of those who are not serious musicians.

Terry St Clair, who plays Dylan, James Taylor and his own compositions in the Piazza at Covent Garden, sees busking as a way of filling in time between professional gigs and sharpening his act. He says he was among those scheduled to appear on The South Bank Show, but learned a couple of weeks ago that he had been dropped: he was not upset, because he had just had a call from Hollywood asking for permission to use a track from one of his CDs in Kevin Costner's latest film, The Upside of Anger. (This sounds like a busker's tall tale; but I can confirm that a film of this title, starring Costner, is scheduled for release in the US this year.)

It is also possible that busking has been assisted by the decline in music teaching in our schools, which has led to a drop in the numbers of semi-competent violinists and recorder players. If the Government wants to claim this as a victory for their education policy, they are welcome to it.

The central problem for the musicians, though, remains the public - its tastes too narrow, its timetables too crowded. As a result, violinists all sigh that they have to play Vivaldi, guitarists all have to run through the same old Beatles and Oasis songs over and over and over again - if you want people to listen, or even pay, you have to give them what they know. And you mostly have to do it in a hurry: the psychological calculation seems to be that people are more willing to fork out for a whole tune that is badly rushed than for a single phrase, however beautifully turned.

A partial solution might be to extend the Underground licensing scheme, with more stringent auditions and an element of public subsidy for the musicians. Perhaps the BBC could dissolve one of its orchestras - what does it need five for, anyway? - and keep the players on the pay roll while sending them out on the street; there, they could treat us to Boulez and John Cage as well as the customary fare. Alternatively, we could all try listening to buskers a little harder and paying them only when they do something really beautiful. A few musicians might starve, but music would flourish.

ALEXEI KIRILLOV, 26, Tottenham Court Road Tube station, Central Line

Repertoire: Vivaldi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky

Alexei Kirillov, 26, arrived in London from Russia a year ago to study English at King's College (at least, that is what he told me: his somewhat halting command of the language suggests that he is not studying at undergraduate level).

He took to busking as a means of supporting himself after seeing an advert on the Underground inviting musicians to audition - back home in Stavropol, at the northern end of the Caucasus, he had studied violin at the local conservatoire. He now plays on the Tube around four hours a day, six days a week, and makes an average of between £40 or £50 a day - better than most buskers; but then, he is a cut above most buskers.

Kirillov has a really well grounded technique (he practises every day at home in Hendon, before commuting to college or to play). And while the repertoire is the same old same old - Vivaldi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky - he plays with real attack, defying the muddy acoustics to produce a well-defined tone.

In the central largo of "Winter", from The Four Seasons , his tuning was amazingly secure - I've paid good money at concert halls to hear proper violinists with recording contracts who weren't anything like as surefooted. Rhythmically, he could be more precise and, as with all Underground buskers, any traces of dynamic subtlety were stamped out by the amplifier.

On the other hand, it was only an amplifier - bonus marks for playing solo, without a recorded accompaniment. Definitely worth a swift detour if you're already on the Central Line.

ROBERTO FALSINI, 31, Covent Garden piazza

Repertoire: U2, Radiohead, Robbie Williams

At first, Roberto Falsini seems to be the evil side of busking brought to grim, throat-straining life: he wears a corduroy cap reversed - any kind of cap reversed is a bad sign - and grinds his voice up to the high notes, Bryan Adams style, eyes closed and head tilted back in musical ecstasy.

This certainly works for the crowds who have settled down to hear him: numbers of attractive young women lap up his sentimental balladry, and two even approach him for his autograph, evidently believing either that he is somebody famous, or might be some day.

This is the upside of busking in the open air: people stop and listen. This is also the downside: at one point, when he sings the line "But you can say 'Baby?'," somebody in the crowd takes this as permission to shout "Baby" very loudly.

Falsini comes from Rome, where he worked as a professional rock musician, but couldn't make ends meet - a gig might pay less than €30 (£20).

He was inspired to settle in London after seeing buskers play to huge crowds in Leicester Square. He has been here a year now: after a miserable time on the South Bank, he is now established on the piazza. He would like to play on the Tube, but lacks the necessary documentation - at least in Covent Garden he is getting fresh air.

Left to himself, he says he would play Radiohead all day; but he has to do Robbie Williams and regular renditions of "Yesterday". His delivery is mostly too emotive; but when he sticks to the lower registers he has a pleasing light tenor, and he is a more than competent guitarist. It's even possible the autograph-hunters were on to a good thing.

STEVE, 44, Piccadilly Tube station, bottom of main escalator

Repertoire: Tangos, Brahms, own music

Steve came from Scarborough originally, and now lives in Essex. Like Piotr, he started out as a music teacher, but says that he decided he had to do something about his stomach ulcers.

When he mentions music teaching, he hunches perceptibly, and takes on a haunted expression. He says: "I was pretty good with some kids," and qualifies his gloom by saying that, actually, some of the best times he has ever had were when he was teaching; but so were the worst.

Now he may worry about whether he will make enough money, but he evidently feels that this is nothing compared to the pressures of life in the education system.

He plays the violin - mostly songs he has written himself, a selection of which are available on his CD All Stations to Everywhere - total sales to date about 50 copies.

He is not as gifted a violinist as Alexei Kirillov - the sound is far tamer - and it does not help that his pitch is next to an under-lubricated escalator, which competes very effectively.

To begin with, playing Brahms in a gypsy style, he was visibly tense and unhappy, and his tuning was not always great; the passers-by did not respond. But when I returned a few minutes later, he was playing a tango - one of his own, I'm guessing - with a lot more brio, and looking much happier, smiling rather winningly at the passers-by. People were responding with cash.

A lesson here: the secret of successful busking is being likeable, rather than musical.

PIOTR KUZEMCZAK, 25, Piccadilly Tube station, bottom of main escalator

Repertoire: Santana, Gary Moore

Another highly trained East European, Piotr Kuzemczak is Polish (although you might be fooled by the fact that his name is Ukrainian), from Slubsk near the Baltic coast, where he trained as a high-school music teacher. He started busking to support himself through college.

He travelled to this country with his fiancée in October last year. They live near Bond Street and are working hard to save enough to buy a flat back home. Mr Kuzemczak thinks they are nearing their target.

By night, he works as a pizza chef in Leicester Square; by day, on the Tube, he plays a smooth-sounding, melodic electric guitar - when I came along, he was playing Santana's "Black Magic Woman".

As a young guitarist, he was into Metallica, Jimi Hendrix and Queen - he credits Brian May's guitar on the song "Killer Queen" with inspiring him to take up the guitar (his formal training was as a violinist).

But, he says, as he has grown older he has come to appreciate the variety of colour that Santana get into their melodies: "Heavy music is better for beginners."

He also cites Gary Moore as an important component of his repertoire, which leads to shock and embarrassment all round when I admit that the name of this guitarist means nothing to me: face is saved by the suggestion that I would probably know it if I heard it.

He also plays the Beatles and jazz standards. Mr Kuzemczak's music - with recorded accompaniment - is mostly rather soothing, especially heard from a distance, the notes drifting down the tunnels and on to the platforms.

But then, most buskers sound better from a distance.

JUAN GONZALES, 40, Tottenham Court Road Tube station, exit one

Repertoire: South American folk songs

Andean musicians were depicted in The Fast Show as shuffling incompetents, huddling under ponchos and wide-brimmed hats while playing cacophonous, arhythmic nonsense.

Juan Gonzales, 40, from Peru, is disappointingly wide of the stereotype: a clean-cut man in a neat shirt and casual trousers. His playing on the panpipe is also clean-cut - pleasant but repetitive melodies, ideally suited to commuters who aren't intending to linger more than a phrase or two, played with a sharp sound and rhythmic snap.

This is also somewhat disappointing if, like me, you grew up on the breathy, fluttery sound of the panpipes in Picnic at Hanging Rock . Gonzales also loses points for using a recorded accompaniment, though at least his Walkman and amplifier set-up produces a distortion-free sound, a long way from the old-fashioned beat-box.

He is a relative newcomer to the Tube, having busked his way around Welwyn Garden City, Bournemouth, large swaths of Cornwall, and Huntingdon. He now lives in Islington with his wife. He is a self-taught panpipe player, and has been at it for 15 years now. Interested passers-by can also buy a self-produced CD, Puerta del Sol . He says he doesn't sell many, but regards them as a kind of advert and he sometimes gets booked for private parties. He reckons he earns £35 in a five-hour day, although it is sometimes much less.

Not at all my cup of tea, but Gonzales is clearly doing something right: while I watched, mice kept crawling around his gear. Anybody in need of a Pied Piper for pest control might want to get in touch.