top of page


episodes busking abroad

Basil Cole


My first time street performing overseas was supposed to be in Bali in April, 2015. However, during the flight, my cello shattered into many pieces. The body cracked through on every panel, the ebony fingerboard disconnected from the body, taking the nut with it, and the bridge snapped in half. My understanding of stringed instruments was that they require specialized knowledge and tools for repairs: hide glue, heat applicators, custom vises, etc. I resigned myself to the fact that busking on this trip was over before it had started. I stayed with a Javan acquaintance, a musician who built instruments out of bamboo. On the night before I headed west toward Java, not wanting to carry a broken cello around the globe, I offered him the pieces, suggesting he might build something out of them in the future. He was shocked, not only that I would give him something so (relatively) expensive, but also that I thought it was broken beyond repair. He said, ‘I’m an instrument builder, we can fix this tonight before you leave.’ I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and we tore through the humid night, one turnabout after another —I remember one motorbike with glowing, open charcoal stoves suspended on either side, puttering hauntingly slowly around the circle— At the supermarket, I bought tubes of his favorite Chinese superglue. Back at his place, we slathered the cello in toxic glue and clamped the cracks together with our hands for the minute or so it took to set. Invariably, our fingers were stuck to the instrument each time. We repeated this stubborn ritual of strength and finesse, sacrificing layers of skin and I felt closer to him then than at any other time during my stay. After we sealed the last seam in the body shut, there was a puddle of wet glue in the shoulder of the instrument into which I pressed two Indonesian rupiah coins for luck.


In Istanbul, I was busking along the Istiklal Caddesi. Earlier that day, I had been royally accosted by an unstable, territorial flautist. Now, street kids were pretending to take the coins (each of which I, unfortunately, needed) from my hat while I performed, each pass more brazen than the last. I was soon asked by a shopkeeper to move until he had closed for the day. While packing up, exasperated, still rattled by the morning’s altercation and encumbered by my gear, I spilled the change onto the cobblestone street. A kid dove for a lira and I, emboldened by the language barrier, said sharply (though under my breath), ‘little fucker!’ He immediately looked at me, genuinely terrified, and held up the coin; he had picked it up for me.


On a bridge over the Landwehr Canal, I saw with my peripheral vision a young woman, who had been listening to my music for some time, begin to dance. She was fluid and confident, experienced yet free. When I finished playing, I asked if she was a dancer and she responded, ‘Why not? A little to the left, a little to the right.’ Her name was Nu, and her teeth were almost black with wine. She gave me the name of a bar where I could find her and we parted ways. A week later, strolling through the park on my way home, I passed a woman walking extremely slowly and with a slight limp. I’d passed her by two paces when I heard a faint ‘hello.’ It is Nu and she’s broken her foot dancing the night before. We take her ‘tempo’ as we walk toward the canal. Finally arriving to a bench, she removes her shoe and we admire the rich greens and purples of the bruise. She warns against the dangers of ballet. I learn that she doesn’t have a stable living situation or way to make money and she says that she too needs an instrument. She states that she is a captain without a ship, the only woman in her class at the maritime school in Istanbul. I flinch when I see how badly she’s chipped her four front teeth. She won’t show me and says it’s been a rough week.


I was traveling, a mattress in the back of my pickup truck, across Canada and, in Montréal, my routine was to sleep beside a park in a wealthy neighborhood north of the city center. What was safe and private in the evenings was bustling and alive with children and their parents in the mornings. Opening the aluminum topper and rolling out of bed was awkward, especially this morning, when I decided it was time to throw away a few water bottles full of pee I had accumulated. I moved quickly toward the trash can, carefully concealing the color of the bottles with my arms. As I threw the first one into the trash, an athletic, middle-aged woman stepped towards me and said angrily, ‘come on, it’s 2015, everyone needs to be recycling!’ She grabbed a bottle and poured the piss onto the ground at our feet, tossing it in the recycling bin next to the trash can. I did the same with the remaining bottles.

The next morning, I sat in the park and played a public piano for half an hour or so. A woman approached me with tears in her eyes, telling me in French how beautiful the music was. We went through the requisite moment where she realized I don’t speak French and then she told me in English about her daughter who, during her first semester at college, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. The daughter is now depressed and spends her time in their apartment on the other side of the park. She tells me how her daughter loves music and how going on walks makes them both feel better. She says I need to play for her and I agree and never see her again.

Busking on the streets downtown I think I hear, and then I do hear beautiful singing directly behind me. It is Étienne harmonizing with my music, and he invites me to an eco-village in the northern wilderness for a party. He says he will give me a ride, but at the last minute asks me for a ride. We drive for three or four hours to a remote compound with a few houses, all under construction. In the house closest to completion I meet Allen, founder of the nascent eco-village. He is maybe forty-five and tells me of the rich life he has led in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe. He is a master carpenter and an excellent musician. Perhaps because he had spent the most time in the states, he was the one most likely to break from the French conversation to engage with me and fill me in. He assigned me the task of building a rock cairn, balancing rocks in a sculpture at the entrance to the property to signal to partygoers where to turn. I spent an hour harvesting stones and then balancing them. I snapped a picture and returned to tell Allen to have a look. He came back and casually told me it had fallen over. I said, ‘isn’t it supposed to be precarious?’ He responded, ‘it’s supposed to seem precarious.’ Allen suffers from a degenerative eye condition that will soon render him completely blind. The eco-village is his crafting, with the last of his vision, the tableau in which he will grow old. He will memorize every step between the houses on the bluff, the path that winds along the stream, through the outdoor kitchen and into the clearing where we had an enormous fire and played music until the sun came up.

photo by Steve Harvey


bottom of page