Summertime songs

Jun 23, 1999 at 12:00 am

While buskers, with their fully formed acts and prop bags and such, can be tough to find on any given day, for raw street-performance goodness of the musical variety, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Detroit’s Eastern Market on a sunny summer Saturday morning.

The central nerve along which this musical reflex fires is Russell Street. Bring some folding money and prep the ears. A music seeker can start at the corner of Russell and the I-94 overpass and catch the unnamed jazz quartet that stakes its claim to your eyes and ears with its brand of dusty, stop-and-go bop. This crew of distinguished, dressed-down older gents centers its ramblings around the slapdash rhythm section of a 60-year-old man playing a children’s drum set and another large fellow plucking an often-three-sometimes-four-stringed upright bass. Filling out the sound – so to speak – are two trumpeters who play as though serenading a baby, even though their horns are semiplugged with spider webs.

Heading north, you’ll likely be struck by a conflicting sonic barrage as you near the Rocky Peanut Company. The Eastern Market landmark often populates the public soundwaves with polka music played over loudspeakers and punctuated by announcements of food specials. But underneath this din, you’ll likely catch the island tones of a sweet, sweet steel-drum tune. Think of this fine gentleman’s music as a way to clear your palate for an even more alarming Caribbean music sensation – Ya Tafari.

Stationed in front of jazz hideout Bert’s Marketplace, Tafari holds court dressed in a banana-yellow suit. With cheesy Casio synth in full rhythm-programmed reggae groove, you’ll likely hear Tafari’s dubbish synthesizer punctuation before you realize exactly what the noise is all about. But Tafari’s here to take you away to a place of sand, sun and syncopation – and, for $15, you can take a little bit of him home with you on CD. With one keyboard on autopilot playing the particular song’s melody and the other on autopilot playing the rhythm and percussion, Tafari’s free to do what he does best, chat up passersby, inject his own unique musical serum into the groove and implore fruit and vegetable shoppers to "dance in the sun, my people!" Ahh, summertime!

It’s now time to head straight into the heart of the market. There is, perhaps, no better-known musician working in Detroit than bluesman Robert Bradley. From his chair at the center of the big shed, his smoky blues finds its way into the very fabric of the market as it has for more than 10 years.

The legend of Robert Bradley is one that’s told often – whispered by music journalists for the past four or five years in music and pop culture mags such as this one. Bradley’s ascendance has become a minor myth. It goes something like this: It seems that Bradley, a street musician – and a blind one that sang the blues, to boot – was performing in Detroit’s Eastern Market as he had done for years when his sweet soulful strumming and singing drifted into the studio of local rock veterans Chris and Andrew Nehra. They invited Bradley up to the studio, formed a musical bond and became Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, a full-fledged blues-rock band signed to RCA Records.

I think my mother summarized it best: While shopping in the market last weekend, we crossed within hearing distance of Bradley and, as we approached, she said with equal shares of fascination, appreciation and slight surprise, "Oh, he’s been playing here for years!"

An integral part of the Eastern Market – and, indeed, in some cities, the urban – experience, this layer of sonic beauty is one that you just may take for granted. Particularly in Detroit, where there aren’t that many places where folks gather in large throngs not related to an event sanctioned by, say, Ticketmaster or the Red Wings, it’s a treat to have all of this music sweetening the air around us. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]