Music on street corners

The beginnings of a travel writing piece, in which I interview musicians on street corners in Cambridge and London. This section will also be featured as part of my weekly column (though I won’t print the column in full–check out next week for that if you want!).


A young woman stoops in the heat to wipe her brow in the hot noon sun, reaching into her black vinyl guitar case, which stands open on the ground in front of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England. She assesses her profits thus far, before standing up, strumming a chord, and playing the opening measures of La Bamba.

Yet instead of the traditional Spanish words, an ethereal sound emerges—a combination of vowels and consonants that reach out into the open sky of the small city and beyond my comprehension. Behind her, the 801-year-old University of Cambridge can be seen in the distance, the height and grandeur of Holy Trinity seeming small in comparison to the palace-like elegance of King’s College in the near background.

I strain to listen; I assume that I simply cannot make sense of the sounds due to some failure to discern an accent.

I walk closer to the corner of St. Andrews Street, where this woman is standing, so that I can hear, until I find myself near her. Her red floral skirt sways as she bows up and down with her notes, many of which seem off-key.

“Isn’t that the worst noise you’ve ever heard?” the attendant at a nearby sausage cart asks a young British girl who is buying three spiced sausages. His radio, volume off, sits on abandoned on a stone wall behind him.

But Kaori, the woman singing, does not notice. She is chasing a 5£ note (the equivalent of roughly $7.50) as it blows away in a light breeze, the straps of her teal sandals crushing it so she can pick it up, before it is gone forever.

Kaori, one of many street performers in Cambridge and London, has been in England for four months singing her original Japanese compositions. In September, she is leaving for India. But she only plans to stay for six months. Then, she’ll continue as she has for the past six years: traveling around the world to play her music.

“Sometimes good money, sometimes not good money,” she says, when I ask her how she fares on this particular street corner on Cambridge.

She has no plans, however, to return to her native Japan.

“Japan is a completely different place,” she says. “They don’t like music on the street. They don’t accept music on the street.”

In England, and most of Europe, however, musicians, dancers, and street performers abound. It’s not unlike walking through Cambridge, Mass., or any other American city. Some are very talented; some are very passionate; and some, like Kaori, are moving past comments from people like the sausage vendor, and focusing on the positive feedback.

After talking to her, I stood back, and watched as groups of young women her age—somewhere in her mid-20s—stopped to listen to her sing, and drop a few coins in her guitar bag. (Dropping a few coins as a donation in England is far more generous than dropping a few coins would be in the U.S.; the U.K. has 1£ and 2£ coins.)


So, we will see how this goes. This particular street corner–in the heart of Cambridge–attracts a lot of musicians, especially in the summer. I’m going to try to visit around noon several days this week to see who else is out there. I’ve already got notes on a group of break-dancers/singers from America who were performning in London’s Covent Garden area, too. I don’t know what kind of personal narrative angle I’ll take on this, except that I think it’s inherently interesting to talk to people–and that most street musicians are pretty friendly and happy when a reporter (OK, freelancer) approaches. Most interesting discovery: most musicians I’ve approached are not from the U.K.! Maybe that’s a result of it being summer?

In any case, my mind is spinning right now as I try to re-adjust to the European time zone… after a very exciting (and mostly internet-free) half week in London/Bath, and then a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., I’m just about ready to crash… except that I have to write a 4,000 word research paper, read some more of Ulysses, and draft a new presentation by Monday; go with the UNH-Cambridge group to the Globe Theater (in London) on Tuesday; go to classes on Wednesday; and then–when all that is said and done–rush off to Edinburgh, Scotland from Thursday – Sunday. All very exciting things, of course. But all making me sleepy.

Darn jet lag. I just got over the first bout of it.

2 thoughts on “Music on street corners

  1. kristinareardon says:

    Thanks! Hopefully I’ll get some more stuff up here soon… rain has kept my street musicians off the streets :/ I still have two more weeks though…

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