Friday, February 24, 2012

Mai Dinh Toi - Mr. Amazing

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
So, here's how the story starts. I was working as a casting assistant for one of those big talent show reality programs as they came through The City. It's a pretty crushing experience, thousands of aspiring people pinning their dreams on this one shot crowding into a hotel on an overcast San Francisco day. I try not to be cynical about it, these people have dreams just like I do and for one of them, this will be the break of a lifetime.

But even though I tell myself this over and over again, sometimes I need an escape. That's where 'the run' comes in. The production staff needs something and I'm their monkey. I get to go outside, I don't have to spend uncomfortable moments while contestants try and size me up to see if I'm important enough to butter up (I'm not). It's fifteen to thirty minutes of minor freedom while I run to nearby store and pick up supplies.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

It's on one of these runs where I turn onto Market from 5th street on my way to one of the three Walgreens within a few blocks of each other when I saw him. A Vietnamese man is fiddling with a MiniDisc player rigged to a small amp with what looks like a chrome leaf blower over his shoulder that he's holding like a guitar. Because, as it turns out, it was.

I had just started doing the interviews, I had gotten the Lowery Brothers the week before and had just talked Kevin into coming along with me to do the photos. But I was on my actual job at the moment, I couldn't drop everything and do this interview even if I had my recording gear and photographer. I approached him to see if he'd be back the next day when I knew both me and Kevin would be free. Unfortunately, he did not speak English but a nice woman from Vietnam stepped forward to translate for me and the arrangements were made for both of them to be back so I could do the interview.

I had assumed that the woman, who introduced herself as Trang, was related to the performer. No, she clarified, that's Mai Dinh Toi who is a nationally famous composer in Vietnam and she just happened to recognize him. I have to admit, I was thinking "Okay...famous...", but what you'll hear in the beginning of the recording where I let Trang introduce herself before translating for Mai Dinh Toi is an excited conversation between Toi and a group of Vietnamese people. I had asked her if he knew them and she looked at me squarely and repeated, "He is famous in Vietnam." By famous, she meant famous.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

And I could see why. In addition to his motorcycle engine guitar he had a garden hose flute, PVC nose flutes, a Heineken bottle pan flute, and a rice bowl bells. This is apparently a small sampling of his collection of instruments made from found objects. Reminiscent of Harry Partch riding rails and leaving new instruments with people along the way, Mai Dinh Toi has decided to take his experimental instruments on a street tour of the US and decided to start in San Francisco.

You're going to hear Trang talk about 'Guinnesses' that he has, what she's referring to is an entry in the Vietnam Guinness Book for his instruments and the World Guinness book.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

While he was performing he was approached by a police officer who was concerned about his use of amplification. But a crowd had gathered already eager to hear what his bizarre collection of instruments sounded like and Kevin was able to step in and talk to the officer on Toi's behalf allowing him to continue playing. Trang mentioned later that it had been difficult to get the performance permit for amplification and he was doing what he could.

It was a struggle, his MiniDisc player ran through a series of worn adapters into the small practice amp along with the mics for the various instruments. No mixer, just both things patched into the tiny amp. He often had to start and stop trying to get the connections to work or the right backing track cued up.

When he did work it out, it was amazing to watch. Few of the performers we interviewed were able to command as large an audience as he was able to as people stopped on their way in or out of the Westfield Mall or to and from lunch.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Mai Dinh Toi had performed in concert halls for big ticket recitals but felt that his music was for the people, all the people, so he took it to them. And they were happy to hear it and see it.

So, this is it. These are my street performer interviews. I enjoyed doing them and I wish I could have made them into the grandiose thing I wanted them to be, but I'm glad to have at least shared what I had and I hoped you enjoyed it. I hope that it brings a little light on to the incredible performances around you and if you're in San Francisco or any other city with street performers you stop and check some of this stuff out. And be sure to throw a bill or two into their hats, they deserve it. Thanks for reading.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jerome - Drums

Jerome Photo: Kevin Hazelton
First of all, two admissions. First is that I lost my notes and I don't know how to spell Jerome's last name. The second, we clearly caught Jerome on a bit of a bad day. We tried our best to not press the street performers who did not want to take part in the project, though we rarely encountered resistance. But we were taking up their time and if they weren't playing they weren't earning so we tried to take no as no. Somewhere the communication broke down with Jerome, I think he wanted to take part but just didn't like the way we were going about it. Ultimately he did agree to participate and we tried to keep things short.

He only had four hours in Larry "Bucketman" Hunt's spot and he was trying to make the most of it. We guessed that like the Lowery Brothers he had been moved from his other spots. Drums are a little trickier than most instruments, whether they are regular drums or buckets, in that they have to be packed up and set up, they take up more sidewalk and separates the performer from the passerbys. Plus, they are not particularly melodic, but rhythm is one of the things that effect us on a more primal level, so they have that going for them.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Jerome had just returned to The City after staying in Japan for over a decade. He was on his way back through the states to catch up with friends. Shortly after we wrapped our interview someone approached having recognized him from years past. And that's sort of where it clicked. We were a little soured, we had upset a performer when we were really trying not to and it had effected our attitude a little bit, but here was a performer who was not the most unique (that's the next one) or most dynamic, but he was recognized and his absence was noted.

Because street performers matter. They matter to the city and the people who have to spend their time in it. They add to the texture and feel of the urban experience in San Francisco and any other city that has a street performing community. The addition of music and performance adds something to the life of the city where they perform. And like magic, we felt good about what we were doing again.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Larry Hunt - The Bucketman

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
When I decided to do this project there were a few things that happened that sort of reinforced my notion that this was important enough. One of those I linked in the opening post on the project about Joshua Bell playing in a subway. The movie The Soloist came out. But perhaps the most affirming was the beginning of The Bucketman Campaign. From a blog post (one that gets more hits than I do...), people managed to unite to take care of what I had rightly started to consider a city treasure, our street performers. In this case, the famous Larry Hunt, or as we all know him, Bucketman.

It's easy, once you meet him, to understand why he particularly became beloved. He's just a genuely happy guy to be around. Even when he's scolding his compatriat, a man doing James Brown sing-a-longs complete with mic stand acrobatics who almost hits a passerby with it he's upbeat and likable. He's trying to tell him to conserve his voice because they have a street performer all-star band performance in Union Square later that day.

Oh yeah, he heads an all star street performer band that performs in Union Square. Ideally, I had wanted to cap off this whole thing by filming one of those concerts. Instead, I can only hope they are still going on and encourage anyone who reads this to seek them out.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Hunt is also a tireless promoter. Talk to him for a minute you'll get his list of credits, starting with Will Smith's Pursuit of Happyness among other film and television appearances. Honestly, if you're watching a show that takes place in San Francisco you can tell if it's filmed in the city or not by whether or not they include a shot of Mr. Hunt.

His notoriety was such that I was sure he wouldn't need me, but I was wrapping up my first interview with the Supa Lowery Brothers when I turned to see Bucketman politely waiting for me. He quickly shook my hand and introduced himself and asked what I was doing and more importantly that I should do it with him. He gave me the times and places I could find him and any other information he could hurry out and seemed genuinely excited to participate even after I told him I was just some guy and hadn't even started the website yet. None of that mattered, he was anxious to tell me his story as he is anyone else who might ask.
Photo: Kevin Hazelton

A little less of a novelty then Bushman, Bucketman is still an attraction all unto himself. He is kind of an elder statesman of street performers, treating each of them that he encountered (at least three stopped by to see him) with respect and handing out advice when asked. He maintained a schedule that sort of worked like an unofficial version of the Port Authority's that allowed other performers to use his highly valuable space (a drummer had just wrapped up his time in Bucketman's slot, the James Brown singer filled in spots when Mr. Hunt would talk to tourists).

It was my job in San Francisco often to take visiting television crews on site seeing tours to get what they call 'b-roll' of San Francisco and the list was always the same...Coit Tower, Lombard St., Golden Gate Bridge/Fort Point, occasionally the Painted Ladies...etc etc. When you come to San Francisco you'll likely have a similar list. Let me add for you 4th and Market in the mid to late afternoon. Coit Tower is just a tower, Lombard isn't even the most crooked street in the city, the bridge is awesome enough, but it's still a bridge. Bucketman, on the other hand, is a man who enthusiastically plays paint buckets and will actually welcome you to the city. Check him out.
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Emily Palen - Violin

Emily Palen Photo: Kevin Hazelton
It took two tries to find her, but finally we did. My friend and photographer Kevin had seen her a few times on his way to work or to see friends and had been telling me about her, but when we stepped out the first time she wasn't there.

But now we're out on a Thursday and she's in her spot at Union Square in front of Neiman Marcus. You can't just play any instrument in front of a store like Neiman Marcus, it's fitting that Emily Palen's instrument is the violin.

There are three stereotypes of the violinist, the up-tight classicist, the 'fiddler', and the experimental player. While I would argue that every violin player has a little of all three in them, certainly Palen gravitates towards the last one, the experimentalist.

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
Street performers tend to perform a hodge podge of original music and 'covers' or canonical music that the passers by will recognize. Palen takes a third path by improvising the entire time. I've actually tried this on the saxophone when 'playing' for the Salvation Army one money tight Christmas and for me, it broke down pretty quickly. Granted it might be easier to maintain that long an unaccompanied improvisation with a polyphonic instrument, but it's still a feat.

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
She also relies heavily on something we began to noticing in other street performers. While sometimes it takes the form of frustration, the performers feed off the energy of the passers by. Palen specifically seems to rely on it to take her performance to wherever it goes.

One of the quirks of San Francisco, we're only a few blocks from where we picked up The Supa Lowery Brothers and BucketMan, but the crowd is entirely different. Union Square is a more upscale shopping area, the clothes are fancier, the average passer by seems a bit more affluent. This is the block up that the people a few stories up go to for their lunch. So instead of buckets, they get violin. It was an interesting divide in how street performers select their locations.

Like the other street performers, she had a lot to of interesting things to say, hopefully there's enough room to enjoy her music as well.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Rodney - Saxophone

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
Nothing is more iconic for street performers than a lone tenor saxophonist. I've put up bands, a weird animal act, but when people think 'street performers' they either think mimes, or lone saxophonists.  That might be some kind of personality test, but I digress.

Rodney was, in a way, my grail. The kernel that started this project was the fact that I would pass Rodney almost every time I went into the city. Then there was a day I passed him and he wasn't playing, but talking to someone in some sort of animated conversation.

That's when it occurred to me that I really didn't know anything about these guys and it might be interesting to find out.

So I stopped and talked to him and asked where he'd be the next day. Of course, when I did come out to see him, he wasn't there. Street performers, as seems obvious, work on their own schedule. But I was able to find the Supa Lowery Brothers that day and found Rodney eventually.

He was in turns the most enthusiastic interview subject and the most reluctant, sometimes within the course of a single sentence. When I met him the first time he was intrigued by the idea and seemed into the interview. When I met him the second time he didn't seem to remember who I was and was hesitant, but then really got into it.

In a lot of ways I thought of Rodney as my main motivation for finishing the interviews, because every time he saw me afterwards he would grill me about the progress.
Tip Your Street Performers! Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Every street performer has a little bit of the philosopher in them, Rodney has that in massive doses. When you interview someone where you intend to take yourself out of the interview you try and instruct the subject to include the question in their answer. We usually give the example of "So, if I ask you your name, you say 'My name is Rodney' instead of just saying 'Rodney.'" Which makes it sound a lot easier than it is. That's why, when you watch reality show interviews a lot of people seem to be asking themselves questions they then answer.

Street performers more or less just ignored me and every minute I spent interviewing them they weren't making money, so I never belabored the point to avoid making them angry.

But with Rodney, it was nearly impossible. But what did happen were these awesome stream of consciousness rants that my questions could never unlocked in a normal interview.

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
So, you'll notice some differences. (if you've been actually following the blog from the beginning you'll notice a lot of differences, like the second player I added for each post and the slightly new look. I'm not sure which one I prefer, they both have their pluses so for the time being I'm keeping both up). But specific to Rodney...first is what I call the 'usable interview,' the part where Rodney stayed on topic and more or less answered the questions in a way where it wasn't necessary that you heard the question. Mostly, I did have to include my question in at least one so you get to hear my nasally voice in the distance.

But in addition to that, I've strung together some of his rants over some more of his playing. I'm not religious, but this is about him not me, so there is some proselytizing in there. I apologize that I really didn't have as much room to let you just hear Rodney play, but I do encourage you to take a lunch time stroll on Market between 1st and 2nd (I'm a little disappointed that the Google Streetview car didn't catch him) and listen to him play. Be sure to tip him and tell him that interview guy sent you. No guarantees he'll remember, but he just might.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gregory Pike and Dog Cat Rat

Greg Pike and his triple decker pets. Photo:Kevin Hazelton
This was on my first day with Kevin and there were two people he had seen that he was hoping to find again. He had actually been excitedly trying to describe this particular act to me as we decided to break for lunch.

As it turns out, I was maybe one of the few people who hadn't heard of Gregory Pike and his unique pets. Mr. Pike, you see, had trained his dog to give a ride to his cat who in turn gave a ride to his pet rat.


Three to four years ago, this was a bit of a unique phenomenon, and as we made our way down Powell between Geary and O'Farrell to get some burritos, there was Greg Pike and his mobile menagerie.

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
So, originally I had intended to record musicians. Partially because all I had to do this project on was audio equipment and I couldn't really represent acts like the robot men or jugglers or whatever other spectacle happens on a regular basis on the San Francisco streets. I had to decide if this constituted street performance. He wasn't performing per se, he wasn't at a particular location, he himself was on the move to somewhere with his pet tower in tow.

But the reality is, it was a spectacle and just as many people stopped and watched if not more than some of the musical acts we had already encountered. And Mr. Pike, like his other performers, was living off tips from onlookers.

Not that this was his only plan. Dog Cat Rat was, above all else, a message of peace and cooperation. And Pike delivered that message to anyone who would stop and ask.

Photo: Kevin Hazelton
It's hard, in my cynical normal existence, to associate getting a cat to accept a free ride with people putting away their differences and getting along. But I have to admit, when you're sitting next to the pet stack, it's a little easier to believe. Or maybe it just makes you think of the Town Musicians of Bremen.

When I met him he had just finished a bit for Animal Planet and was thinking about moving on to other cities to spread his message. Judging from the amount of hits if you just Google Dog Cat Rat, spread his message has. I don't know that I can say much more about him than others have save to just let him speak for himself.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The GroWiser Band

The GroWiser Band Photo: Kevin Hazelton

One of the things that I learned when grabbing the interview with the Supa Lowery Brothers is that I don't want to handle all the audio equipment and take all the photographs. I was only able to grab them on that outing and when I found a flute player in their first spot I was too tired to grab a second interview.

So when I set out again I took actor friend Kevin Hazelton, who also happens to be a photographer, to take the pictures.

Another Tuesday and we're on the move. We've been going up and down the Financial District because it's closest to where we both call home, but today we're on a mission. We want Bushman, a notorious Fisherman's Wharf fixture who 'hides' behind two plastic branches and spooks tourists. You have not been to San Francisco until you've been "BOO!"ed by Bushman.

I'll spoiler you right now, we found him but only when I had to get Kevin back to work and were never able to interview him. It is, in fact, the greatest failure of this project.

What we did find, however, was a duo from The Growiser Band featuring founder Hubert Emerson on keyboard and Sahar Miller on saxophone. As a saxophonist myself, I have a weakness for street performing saxophonists.
Hubert Emerson Photo: Kevin Hazelton

Growiser is performing in a designated area at Fisherman's Wharf. The Wharf handles street performers a little differently. Obviously, this is the high traffic area for those valuable tourist dollars and a great place for a street performer to be seen. There are fixtures, like the aforementioned Bushman, the usual spraypaint and caraciture artists, dance crews, 'robot men' (which it turns out, is a group...also never got that interview), bands, and musicians all competing for space. The Port Authority has a Street Performer Program that assigns spots and time slots.

For performers this does cut down on territorial disputes which can be a source of frustration, but also places a limit on the time they can promote themselves.

Growiser has set up under the iconic Wharf sign with a keyboard handling both drums and Emerson's playing while Sahar stands next to him playing alto saxophone. Like the Lowery Brothers, between songs they sell CDs and tell anyone who asks about upcoming shows.
Sahar Miller Photo: Kevin Hazelton

They are seasoned vets of the Wharf street performers. One of the reasons that it took me so long to getting to cut this particular interview was not only that it was two people, but because Emerson had so much informative stuff to say on the nature of street performing and the politics of it as it pertains specifically to the Port Authority.

For them, it's a trade off. Unlike the Lowery Brothers, they have not been moved after setting up. And their foot traffic is there to gawk. Regulation means once your slot is in, it's in. But it also means restrictions, something I found that street performers do not deal well with.

One of the main themes in every interview was a sense of self-determination. For them, the port authority is a trade off, trade some of that self-determination for a prime location and no hassle for their three hour slot.

Three years later, Growiser still has their Wharf schedule on their website. If you're going to San Francisco, check in on it and them. Afterwards, if you head west towards the beach, you might encounter Bushman as well and can consider your visit to San Francisco complete.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Supa Lowery Brothers

Supa Lowery Brothers
It's 2pm on a Tuesday and the Supa Lowery Brothers are on the move again. They had set up in a courtyard between 3rd and 4th St. on Market next to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, but shortly into their first number a security guard had come up and told them they can't play there.

As a trio featuring Chris and Wes Lowery with Mekiso Young (appologies, I've lost my notes so I don't know if I spelled his name right) on guitar they face slightly bigger challenges than the average street performers. They are amplified, which is its own hassle, they need more space, and setting up and tearing down is more involved processes.

But even after this first set back, they're undeterred. They settle on the future storefront for Diesel clothing on the three-way corner of Ellis, Stockton, and Market. Across the street world famous Bucketman has taken a break from his own street performance in front of Old Navy and the Supa Lowery Brothers are ready to try again.

Originally from Philadelphia, they have come up from LA to promote their band to a San Francisco audience. Between trumpet solos Christopher holds up CDs for sale to passers by.

The Supa Lowery Brothers are my first official street performer encounter. I had intended to interview a saxophone player I would see just about every day and had even arranged to meet him that afternoon, but he's nowhere to be found. Instead, I found this jazz fusion trio hastily setting up their PA system and asked if I could record them.

After quickly re-assembling themselves on the three-way corner, they begin playing again. It turns out to be a good location. The Apple store is just across the corner, and people congregate in front of them waiting to cross one of the three streets.

I've borrowed a Canon DSLR from a friend to photograph the performers and while I take my pictures spectators stop for a few minutes and move on, some dance including one man who remained even after I left. I didn't see anyone buy the CDs that Chris held up, but they remained upbeat regardless.

For them, the tell me, it's all about getting their name out there. They could try and hustle up a club gig which they would have to pay for out of pocket and promote and then play to the people who come in, but they've chosen to take their sound to the street, exposing their music to the lunch crowd in San Francisco's Financial District.

This is the first interview I cut a long time ago on Audacity, which is a good audio editor but I wasn't all that adept at using it editing audio documentaries. It's something I never got the hang of and eventually slowed me to a crawl in the editing process. It's also one of the interviews I stacked at the last half of the track instead of all the way through spread out. The few people who have heard these interviews didn't like that (it is a little jarring when the interview suddenly comes in), so later interviews change that.

I recommend headphones for two reasons, first is so that you can make sure you hear it all. The second reason is atmospheric. This isn't just a music performance, but a street music performance and the sounds of the San Francisco mid-afternoon are just as much a part of it as anything else. So put on a good pair of headphones and let this take you to a bright spring afternoon in San Francisco with the Supa Lowery Brothers. Enjoy.

The Art of Busking

So, for four years I lived on Treasure Island in San Francisco.

What that means is whenever I traveled into The City using public transportation, my starting point was the Transbay Terminal at 1st and Mission in the Financial District, a block away from Market and one of the higher foot traffic areas of San Francisco.

During a gig working on an independent film my van was in the shop and I had to take BART to the locations (luckily it was filmed entirely on the peninsula) and every morning on the way out and every evening on the way back, I would pass a variety of amazing performers playing on the street for tips.

I've been fascinated by street performance for years. My first film for documentary class, long since lost, was a short called Free where I profiled and recorded street performers on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, California. Unfortunately, being who I am, I waited too long to get the footage I needed and was forced to film on a rainy day, limiting my choices.

But I saw so many amazing things being performed in the streets. A cello duo, martial arts and dance demonstrations, contact jugglers, guitarists, saxophonists, all performed on street corners while people went about their day. Some people stop, some don't. Some are good, some are just awful. But to me, it was always interesting.

There's a story that has been around the internet for a while now about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell performing in a D.C. subway where the commuters just pass him by. I won't really summarize the article here again, it's been summarized a lot and surely most of you have already seen it, but the idea is to recognize beauty around you.

In a way, that's what I was hoping to do with this project I started back in 2008. I wanted to bring to the forefront what I felt was an essential background to the cities that I loved so much, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. So, grabbing my audio gear I drug myself out and tried to find street performers who I could interview and present here on the internet, give people a chance to get to know these people, recognize them for the value they are to our urban experience.

I won't go into the 'what happened' or list of excuses why the project never got finished or off the ground, just to say that it didn't. And I've been disappointed about that for a while now. But after helping my brother cut a series of videos about his backyard R/C track I thought I might be able to use iMovie to cut the interviews I had managed to get and finally share them as a sort of omage to what could have been my Grand Street Performer Project.

So, over the next couple of days I'll slowly post the various interviews I've managed to cut and share them with you. Even though it is not as 'grand' as I had intended, hopefully it will allow a few people who read them to take a second glance at the performer they pass on the street and appreciate the color and texture they bring to our day.


Monday, February 13, 2012

The Project into the Future

So...when I said "back in a few" it depended on what "a few" meant.

Here's the problem with the initial project: I dropped my hard drive that the project was being stored on and I haven't been able to get it fixed. I was told it would cost twice as much as a new one just to get it opened, but I'm sure I can find a tiny enough screwdriver for less than $200.

However...I have this illness where I think of ideas I want to explore and then getting lost in how to do them and more importantly, what to do with them.

Well, I have this stillborn blog here where I got almost 80 days into a project and while my readership was meager, it felt good just to %*(&^$ do it.

In a sense, my own hang ups about how to go about distributing my project ideas have been their own albatrosses, keeping me sitting on ideas and sometimes even material because it won't be 'pro' or whatever weird criteria I might have come up with.

Well, the truth is, none of this stuff is going to make me rich or a household name or end up having someone from a documentary channel call me up. There is no point waiting by the phone for Ira Glass to find me interesting.

But, dammit, this is the internet. I have the power to be irrelevant publicly. And ten people a day accidentally can stumble upon my work. Which, while meager, is more than would if these things stay in my head or on my hard drive.

So, here is the divide: There are some random project ideas, like me summarizing my collection of The Shadow radio programs that are really nothing more than me boring strangers about things I like. That's regular blog stuff, that stays on The Sandwich Machine. While that project sounds a lot like what I do here, it makes sense in my head to separate the two. If for some reason you have an opinion on that I'll probably just do whatever you tell me to do because I'll consider you my only reader.

There are other projects in which I actually did something, or interviewed someone doing something, or the like. They are creative endeavors in some way. These projects will now be hosted, as I am able to complete them, here on the Albatross. Should I get a screwdriver to fix my stupid hard drive, the original project will also take place, but perhaps not on the daily grind. We'll see.

So...welcome to the New Project:Albatross. Feel free to wander about the old Project:Albatross. Feel free to thumbs me up or tweet me or whatever method you use to tell other strangers about things you enjoyed.