Keep on busking in the free world

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Those buskers are running wild in the streets, you know. Grown men with flaming bowling pins, roaring chainsaws, 16-foot unicycles, butterfly tattoos on their heads and kaleidoscopic Zuba pants are waiting to work their mojo on you and yours.

No, the city isn’t under siege by forces of mutant Santa’s elves. A busker is that person who stands in the center of a circle of awed onlookers, performing feats of comedy, acrobatics, juggling, magic and music (often all in the same act).

"These are performers who started by performing on the street," says Ken Brandes, who organizes the annual Windsor International Buskers Festival, coming up this weekend. "They looked around – and it doesn’t take an egomaniac to realize that you’re a cut above other street performers."

And though many buskers leave behind lives of extraordinary conventional achievement (performers at this year’s fest include a former research chemist, engineers and members of symphony orchestras), they specialize in alchemizing onlookers into that rarest of birds – an enthralled, responsive crowd that won’t think twice about pitching in folding money when the hat is passed around afterward.

"What sets them apart," says Brandes, "is that they know the psychology of the crowd, they keep them up and interactive. They’re not interested in someone just throwing an odd toonie (Canadian $2 coin) into a guitar case."

Brandes can testify to this rarefied skill firsthand. "At last year’s Buskers Festival, there was a troupe of local kids who were really terrific with BMX tricks," he relates. "But they weren’t filling the hat. They hadn’t brought the crowd into their act." So Brandes steered the kids to contortionist/acrobat/veteran A-list busker and crowd-pleaser, Barto, who imparted this advice: "The difference between getting money in your hat and not is that – somewhere along the line in your act – you have to get the audience to fall in love with either you or your act."

And endear themselves these buskers have. The best ones tour, full time, on a festival circuit that carries them from Singapore and Australia to Hawaii, San Francisco, Vancouver and, well, Windsor.

The buskers’ dazzling acts may be small-scale compared to, say, Ringling Brothers, but that just makes the oohs and aahs more intimate. When Flyin’ Bob, the amazing slack-wire walker, comes inches from smacking the ground from 10 feet up, it’s strangely as nail-biting as any high-wire act, even though you know it’s all a carefully crafted point along a 30-minute performance arc.

This performance progression, which often includes a trading-of-the-barbs with audience members and using an audience member as a comic foil – "Buskers love to dress someone in the audience in a ridiculous costume," chuckles Brandes – is designed to suck in even the most cynical of viewers to the circle round the busker and, eventually, pitch a buck or two into the hat.

After all, even though they may not be walking the boards per se, it’s still show business, after all.

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