Local film celebrates busking in Charlotte

In 2010, Charlotte writer-turned-filmmaker April Denée saw an interesting guy at a bar.  One minute he was making beautiful music by playing glass objects, then he was gone.  When she tracked him down, he was performing on the street, in parks and even in cemeteries.  She thought to herself, “Why aren’t there more people performing out here?”

The new documentary will shine a light on street performers in Charlotte and the problems they face.

The new documentary will shine a light on street performers in Charlotte and the problems they face.

Three years later, her answer can be found in a 42-minute-long documentary she created called BUSK!  The film follows artists who perform on the streets of uptown Charlotte and the challenges they face.

BUSK! will premiere May 19, a Sunday, at 4 p.m. at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square.  Admission is $5 per person. The third Buskapalooza Street Performance Festival will precede the documentary’s premier on May 17, a Friday, from 5 to 9 p.m.  Find more information on both events at www.buskmovie.com.

BUSK! follows several artists who practice their craft on the street – and sometimes fight to stay there.  Joseph Williamson Jr. sketches people on the street for a living but struggles with homelessness.  James Lee Walker II took to singing on Tryon Street after losing his full-time job in “corporate America.”  Singer-songwriting couple, Cate and John Cloer, missed getting one of 40 busking licenses, then saw no one using them.

“In other cities our size, busking is alive and well,” said Chris Hannibal, a 20-year veteran busker and master magician.  “Asides of street preachers and the occasional guitarist, Charlotteans just aren’t used to street performers.”

Though the U.S. Constitution protects busking as a form of free speech, the act is considered begging or panhandling in Charlotte city ordinances.  Though tips are nice, most buskers perform for the love of it.

“There is money to be made at this, but it’s still about the art part… the primary drive is just to perform,” Hannibal said in the film.

In 2004, a local effort was made to legally license buskers, but the system was flawed.

“While Charlotte (Center) City Partners knew what was going on, the police force didn’t,” Hannibal said in BUSK!  “They didn’t know there were supposed to be licenses; that some people can work and some people can’t.  There was no communication and the whole thing just didn’t work.”

Little changed until 2010.  BUSK! shows performers struggling to understand city rules and regulations.  In the middle of playing her guitar, singer Leah Taub must move three feet over to be on public property.  Sidewalk chalk is prohibited on public property unless the artist has a festival license.  Even if they are not soliciting donations, artists who have passes to use the Lynx light rail train cannot perform on the platforms.

Things changed when Denée began advocating for education on and awareness of busking.  BUSK! shows Denée leading performers around Uptown with a map, pointing out safe areas to perform and places to avoid.

“I want to educate artists so they can decide that busking is not for them instead of not doing it because they’re afraid of what will happen if they do,” she said.

In 2011, Denée organized the first two Buskapalooza festivals.  Buskers were invited to participate and were given orange badges that signified their participation.  Festival goers checked-in at tables to learn more about the movement.  Attendance was high, as were the performers’ spirits.  Denée described the event as “magnificent.”

The upcoming Buskapalooza will feature jugglers, tango dancers, belly dancers, balloon artists, puppeteers, musicians, magicians and anyone else who shows up.  Buskapalooza is not overly regulated.  There are no fees required of artists or admission charged to patrons, though tips for performers are always encouraged.

“It’s an agreement among individual artists to come together and do something great,” Denée said.

This Buskapalooza will be Denée’s last for a while.  She will leave her native Charlotte for El Paso, Texas, where her husband will be stationed.  She hopes Charlotteans will understand and embrace busking.  “If they appreciate it then they can advocate for it,” she said.  Eventually she would like to see regulations re-written to promote busking.

Hannibal hopes the momentum continues to build and more artists will perform on a regular basis, even if it means healthy competition.

“More magicians, more musicians, more artists… I would love to see that happen,” he said.  “Every weekend you could see different people who are doing it for the passion.”

What sparked Hannibal’s passion for magic?  How did his busking lead to gigs in Europe?  Read next week to learn about real life as a busker in Charlotte.

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