Artists bring magic into stations (West End Times)

Artists bring magic into stations

Chinese ‘erhu’ brings smiles to faces of harried commuters at SkyTrain stations

West End Times, January 26, 1994

They perform every day for thousands. They are probably seen live by more people than most major pop stars. They’ve also probably trained and studied more than your average pop star. And yet nobody knows their names.

They are street musicians. Buskers. Call them what you will, but don’t call them beggars. Often times, these are very gifted musicians.

Take Blaine Waldbauer and Ji Rong Huang. You can hear them at a SkyTrain station near you.

Each year SkyTrain hands out 25 licences to musicians with styles ranging from folk to rock to classical to flamenco. In order to get a licence, the musician must pass an audition, undergo a security check, and pay $50. That seems like a lot to go through just to play your fiddle for passersby. But Waldbauer doesn’t object.

He has been a street musician for 12 years and is a seven year veteran of the SkyTrain circuit. “This is a craft,” he says. “Just like if you had a plumber, he would have to be expected to know how to do the plumbing. We’re making a living.”

Waldbauer’s been performing on the streets for so long that nothing phases him. But that first time was a little scary. “I came from the prairies,” he said, “and with busking there was a perception of begging. Even now, people come up to me and they confuse the word ‘busker’ and ‘beggar’. They say, ‘You’re panhandling.’ I say, ‘I’m not. I’m busking. Look it up in the dictionary. It means in itinerant musician or actor that plays or performs on the street for gratuities. That’s in Webster’s Dictionary.”

Given these musicians’ obvious talents, some people can’t understand why they’d opt for a life on the streets.

Waldbauer is a violinist with a Bachelor of Composition degree from the University of Victoria. By the age of 19 he had received his associate diploma in violin and piano from Mount Royal College. After graduating, he played with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, where he was principal second violin and played in the first violin section. On any given day you can hear him play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart’s concertos, Irish jigs, country music, movie themes, and even children’s songs. And when he’s performing with his partner, singer/guitarist Cathleen Kolba, they play original folk music.

Huang plays a two-stringed ancient Chinese instrument called the ‘erhu’, known to westerners as the Chinese violin. “Actually, it’s not a violin, but it’s as popular as the western violin in China,” he says. “It’s used in orchestras, for opera, for everything.”

He has been playing the instrument for more than 20 years, since he was a little boy in Shanghai. Huang received his B.A. from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He is a sessional instructor at the school of music at UBC and is also the co-director of the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. At his SkyTrain post, Huang plays classical music, traditional Chinese music and western tunes accompanying himself through the use of modern technology. “I arranged it and played using a keyboard and transferred it to Midi, just like a computer,” he says. As he plays, he sits on a cooler, a smile etched onto his face.

Says Waldbauer, “One of the questions I asked in our master class at university was, Canada produces probably 200 violinists per year, given all the conservatories and universities. There are only 23 openings or so in the symphony orchestra. What are we going to do for work? And the master violinist said, ‘Good question.’

“There’s a perception still in society,” he continues, “that if you’re playing on the street and you’re any good, you should be on stage. I take exception to that because I say music is for people. And the people are on the street.”

Huang agrees. “It’s not possible for everybody to go to concerts because people are busy working or studying. This way they can hear music and can relax after working or studying.”

While a few people do not appreciate street culture, most have been very supportive. Huang has produced two cassettes, which have proven popular with his audience. One tape is Christmas melodies, while the other is a mixed bag of well-known traditional Chinese music, hits like Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Zhivago, and selections from Chopin and Bach.

Says Huang, “Most people enjoy my music very much. That’s why I’m happy doing this job.”