Buskfest Returns to Banbridge

Judge and compere Ralph McLean on why there's more to busking than 'Streets of London'

The act of busking is an undervalued art form, if you ask me. To many it's a pleasant enough diversion if you’re out shopping on a Saturday afternoon, but not really that exciting or engaging in its own right.

Passing punters often chuck the odd bit of pocket shrapnel into the open guitar case or upturned out of pity rather than appreciation. But to me busking is about more than an earnest guitar player sitting in a doorway aimlessly strumming his way through 'Streets of London'.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of strolling through Banbridge during Buskfest will know what I mean. This Saturday (June 23, 2012) the town once again plays host to the fastest growing busking festival in Ireland and I, for one, can’t wait. Why live music, great local talent, a party atmosphere and impressive prize money for the best performers, what’s not to love?

If you’ve never been yourself, though, and still can’t see why I’m encouraging you all to leave your recliners this weekend and soak up the music of hundreds of amateur guitarists, singers, bin lid stompers and street performers (watch special prize winner, Jamie Knight, below), then I beg you to go with me on this one. Leave your preconceptions behind and get yourself into town between 1 and 4.30pm. You won’t be disappointed.

Come along to an event like this, either as a performer or as a punter, in the right mind set and you will find busking to be one of the most vibrant, exciting and downright tough forms of entertainment there is. Entertainers talk about how hard it is to 'work a room' – they want to try 'working a street'. As every busker worth his dinner knows, that’s exactly what you have to do to earn a crust as a modern outdoor entertainer.

I’ve been coming to Buskfest for years now and the sheer breadth of performers belting out their songs up and down the main streets, and side alleyways, of that lively town never fails to raise my spirits. In my time I’ve witnessed full school choirs, drummers, pan pipe puffers and brass ensembles alongside all the acoustic troubadours and gifted instrumentalists you’d expect at an event with the word 'busk' in the title.

There are those there to raise money for charity, those trying out the songs they’ve been writing in their bedrooms for years, and those who just want to enjoy themselves and entertain others.

I’ve seen tiny children play like veterans and more senior musicians strum away with the wild abandon of wee ones let loose in a candy store. I’ve heard folk, country, rock and pop styles side by side and spoken to players from both neighbouring towns and different continents. Trust me, Buskfest is a seriously mind expanding experience.

Personally I’ve no desire to inflict my tone deaf warbling on the good people of Banbridge, but should you feel the need to share your art this weekend check out the Buskfest website or just come along and register at the Old Town Hall on Saturday morning and get signed up to play.

You think it’s easy? In many ways it's the hardest gig in the world. You try to stop a family of agitated shoppers in their tracks with a White Stripes cover or an old Johnny Cash favourite. You have to crank up the enthusiasm, pump up the volume and sell your music to every single punter every single time a new one passes by. But you will learn, and become a better performer because of it.

Yes, busking is an art form for sure, and you will see some truly amazing practitioners of it this Saturday in Banbridge. Even if I can’t promise you won’t hear an occasional version of 'Streets Of London' wafting out from little-used side street, it's certainly much more fun than doing the house work.