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Travelling Siberia as a Modern Minstrel

My little brothers, aged 6 and 9, are obsessed with the newest animated children’s programming sensation, Sponge Bob. In one episode, the title character dreams of giving up his worldly possessions to swim with the jellyfish. After a day of living his dream, he crawls back to his friends, naked, hungry and covered with jellyfish stings. 

A few days ago I was worried that I might end up like Sponge Bob. As it turns out, living my dream worked out pretty well, if not entirely without adventure.

No jellyfish stings, at least.

Break dancing on Uritskovo

After a long, cold and dark winter here in Irkutsk (Siberia), spring has finally arrived, bringing with it flowers, leaves, fruit, birds and street musicians. During the winter, women wrapped in furs and men with ice in their beards hobble down the street, clutching each other for support as they struggle across the ice. In the spring, happy couples stroll along tree-lined boulevards arm-in-arm as children frolic along, all while minstrels make music.

Each time I venture out onto the streets from the tiny, stuffy office I share with five others, I see the street musicians sitting in the warm sunlight and singing. I dream of spending my days in the fresh air, strumming my guitar.

One beautiful Saturday morning in mid-May, I woke up and decided that today would be the day.

Before I could go anywhere, I needed moral support. My love of performing in front of an audience is matched in intensity only by my terror of performing in front of an audience. I also suffered the nagging worry that Irkutsk, like New York, might regulate its street entertainment. If there was to be any trouble with the police, I wanted a local at my side. Plus, I wanted someone to photograph me.

I trotted down the hall to knock on the door of my neighbor Natasha. No answer. Maybe she was out walking her dog.

I called Tanya, who has been teaching me modern classic songs by DDT and Vladimir Visotsky. Her line was busy.

I called Sasha and Anya. They had colds and didn’t feel like going out.

I called Tanya again. Still busy.

I called Katya at home and on her cell phone. No answer.

Gretta, Jon and Allan were at the lake for the weekend.

I didn’t think there was any chance Nick or Ariadna would be interested.

I tried Tanya yet again. Still busy.

Natasha was still not home.

Luckily, I did not give up on my plan. I decided to brave it on my own. I packed my camera and water bottle, and with the guitar on my shoulder and a folding stool under my arm, I set off for the city center.

On the way out, I asked the hall monitor in my building if there were any laws restricting street performances. He didn’t think so, confirming what street performers had told me the day before.

This man borrowed my guitar…

Irkutsk, a city of 700,000 residents three and a half days from either end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, has a compact and bustling city center. The focal point of the city is the Central Food Market and the Shopping Center. Running north from that square is a one-block pedestrian street called Uritskovo. It was in this open arcade I decided to set up shop. . .once I had finally worked up to it, that is. I nearly chickened out and turned home twice.

It took a while to find unoccupied territory. Uritskovo Street, short though it is, was that day heavily worked by advertisers with bullhorns, music shops blaring their wares, demonstrating communists, and my brethren street musicians.

I had just sat down in my first location, when an accordionist I hadn’t noticed began playing across the street. As I was on my way to another location, a man about my age hustled over to warn me that he and his friends had already claimed that end of the street.

I headed back and found a shady space outside a coffee shop just beyond the accordionist’s area. That spot lasted a half-hour before a man ran out of the coffee shop to tell me that playing there was “categorically not allowed.” I didn’t believe him, but he said setting up across the street would be fine, so I moved.

The new spot was in full sun, and I regretted not bringing sunglasses. I was aware of the sun-scowl on my face, which couldn’t possibly be good for business, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. The new location was less pleasant, being next to a trashcan and in front of a shop that had long been out of business. At least there was less chance of the storeowner complaining.

I was not there for the money, but after singing through several songs without one person dropping money in my guitar case, I began to lose heart. Several small children watched me happily, but children are not the most discerning music critics.

I am a more discerning music critic, and I didn’t think I was playing well. I play each day at home and am used to the acoustics of my closed room. When I play at parties, my Russian friends gather round, and we sing through our favorite songs. Everybody gets a kick out of it – and not just because they are amused by my American accent.

I hadn’t counted on the openness of the street muffling my voice or making my guitar sound harsh. For some reason I couldn’t quite pull off one particular right-hand strumming technique. I use that technique for nearly every song. In the open air, the strings would not hold their tune. With my ear close to the guitar I tried to tune it over the noise of the pedestrians, hawkers, cars and other musicians. I debated packing up, but instead made my best guess, knowing if anyone with perfect pitch wandered by, they’d wince.

To top off my discomfort, I was still nervous that I might be breaking a law, or that the police would claim I was so as to extract money from me. I kept an eye on the security guard posted nearby, who kept glancing my way.

After playing a few songs, I began to have patrons, and my mood lifted. Perhaps I wasn’t so terrible after all. I had just started a new song, when I noticed one of my colleagues, Rita, walking by with a friend. After chatting for a few minutes, she donated 10 rubles—making her my biggest fan so far—and moved on. An hour later I kicked myself for forgetting to ask her to photograph me.

Communists on parade

I wanted the photograph, but had no intention of asking a random passerby to take my picture. Not only would it seem rather odd, but I don’t trust anyone I don’t know with a $300 camera in a city where the average salary is around $100 a month.

Once, in St. Petersburg, my friend Heidy surrendered her camera to a man so she could be photographed with his half-grown bear. Afterward she said, “I held on tight to the bear. I wasn’t going to give the bear back until he gave me my camera.” I never figured out what she planned on doing with the bear if he had run off with the camera.

The afternoon wore on. It was a nice day to be outside. After 5 winter months when my window thermometer never once rose above freezing, every one of the 25 degrees Centigrade felt fantastic. It was pleasant watching people move about their business: mothers with children, young couples holding hands, men in military outfits, a few tourists clutching Lonely Planet guides, and of course the communists.

I never figured out what the communists were up to. It was the first time I’d seen any in Irkutsk, a cultured city and the final stronghold of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. What was strikingly unusual about these is that they were young – college age. Most party enthusiasts in Russia these days are the elderly.

When I asked them what they were doing, they said, “What are you doing?” Deciding not to pursue that conversation, I asked whether they minded if I took a picture. “Speaking with an accent like that, you should be paying for a photograph,” I was told. “Where are you from, anyway?”

I don’t like being pegged as a rich American — especially by Russian communists — so I said I was from the Baltic States, an alibi many Americans use. I’m always terrified someone will ask me which city I’m from (I don’t know any of the cities in the Baltics) or, even worse, will be themselves from the Baltics (I’ve never set foot in any of them).

Today, nobody called my bluff.

When I took breaks from playing, I chatted with some of the other musicians. In America, I have in the past driven from one place to another at 3 or 4 in the morning. I am always amazed to see other cars on the road. I know why I am out that late (driving overnight from one city to another), but why are they? I had the same curiosity about the other street musicians. I was there for the novelty of the experience and as an excuse to sit outside and play some music. Who were they, and what had brought them to Uritskovo Street on a Saturday in May?

Far and away the best performer on the street was the accordion player whose space I had nearly usurped. Aleksandr was a member of one of the world’s rarest breeds: elderly Russian men. Most Russian men do not live even to retirement. The sardonic like to point out that Russian men have to pay social security tax anyway.

Aleksandr was an accordion teacher at a local school. He said he plays to keep in practice and “because social security is tiny.” He plays several times a week in different locations year-round, even during the Siberian winter. “I wear gloves. Light gloves, so I can play in them.”

I own heavy gloves, and my fingers froze all winter.

While we were chatting, two young men requested songs from him and made bets over whether he knew the songs. They asked him to play a song about Baikal. He played “In the Wild Steppe Beyond Baikal.” Why, I wondered, did I never get easy requests like that? I knew both “In the Wild Steppe” and “Holy Sea.” During the relatively short time I had been playing that day I had a few requests, but I knew none of the songs.

Two men holding 10 ruble notes had stopped me in the middle of one song to ask for another. I didn’t know it. They chose a different song, which I didn’t know either. “Well, OK, just play a good song,” one of them said. Since they had stopped me in the middle of “Gypsies Were Riding,” my favorite Russian song, I wasn’t sure where to go. I chose “Smoke up, Dear, Smoke up,” which they seemed to like well enough; they both shook my hand afterwards.

Musicians on Karl Marx Street

A man who had brought few of his teeth into his 50s had asked how I expected to earn any money if I couldn’t play the songs people requested. “What songs do you know?” he demanded. I began to list them.

He broke me off. “Just folk songs! Look, learn some real songs. People will pay for that. Folk songs just don’t move my soul.”

When I asked the accordion player later if he enjoyed being a street musician, he said, “Well, I don’t like sitting home. . . but sometimes people ask stupid questions. It can be very unpleasant.”

I had not given up my worldly concerns for the day in order to make money. But I was very curious as to how much one could make playing a guitar on the street. You hear many rumors about beggars who make fortunes (begging is a type of street performance). When I was in Mexico, I knew of a guitarist who played on buses. It was said that he made so much money doing this that he’d turned down regular gigs in bars and restaurants.

Aleksandr, the accordion player, said he usually made about 150 rubles ($5.50) in 3 to 4 hours of playing. “I rarely get more.” He motioned to the passersby. “The people are poor.”

A group of college-age men with one guitar between them had a different take. They agreed that the earnings were low. “The most we ever made was 500 rubles ($17.75). Usually, though, there’s only enough for the ride home. People don’t realize that if you’re going to stand outside and play all day, you have to drink. They don’t donate enough for us to buy drinks.”

This was not for lack of solicitation. While one of the men played the guitar, the others worked in shifts, thrusting hats at pedestrians.

My take was on par with the others. In 2 or 3 hours, I made 95.51 rubles ($3.50). Yes, someone gave me a 1 kopeck coin ($0.0004). Spending 16 rubles for the bus ride to and from downtown, 120 rubles for lunch and 90 rubles for coffee – at the same coffee shop that had kicked me off their stoop – my profit for the outing was -118.49 rubles (-$4.25).

If I want to make a career out of this, I will have to play longer and eat cheaper lunches.

By a little after 3:00, I had played every song I knew a half dozen times. I was still having fun, but I was starting to feel sorry for the nearby street vendors. Unlike Brian Adams, my fingers were not bleeding, but they were certainly sore. I packed up and set off for home.

Not long after I got home, Sasha called. “We really wanted to go with you,” he said. “Are you going to do it again? You’ll have to take us along!”

I put the phone down and resumed playing the guitar on my knee, already practicing for next time.

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