Thank you notes, flowers, smiles: What drives Singapore's young buskers to play their hearts out
CNA Lifestyle met up with with three musicians and a circus artist to find out why they chose performing on streets instead of stages, and what they look forward to once restrictions are lifted.
Even in reserved and pragmatic Singapore, there are performers who hit the streets and sing their hearts out. Some dance, some juggle, and put on a show every weekend that they can.
If they're lucky, they could draw a crowd and loose change. In light of the pandemic, some have turned to the online space – but without the usual crowds and favoured locations, busking in the limelight has been a challenge.
Why do they decide to give their all in front of people in public places? What motivates them to perform?
CNA Lifestyle met three musicians and a circus artist to find out what makes them tick.
MUHAMMAD FIRDAUS OSMAN: "I GET TO MAKE SOMEONE'S DAY"
“I’m the busker that always performs during Valentine’s Day.”
Over the years, Muhammad Firdaus Osman, better known as Fyrdauz Macbeth, has built a reputation as the singer who plays oldies and love songs near Orchard Road’s Mandarin Gallery.
“Typically, lovebirds will be sitting at Wisma Atria’s steps, listening to my love songs,” the 27-year-old recalled. “People will come to me saying ‘Hey, thank you for making our night’.”
From his years performing on the holiday, one memory in particular stands out.
Amidst the couples that stopped for his performance, one solitary audience member approached Osman saying, “You really made my day. Although today is Valentine’s Day, I just broke up with my girlfriend. So thank you for that.”
“It happened twice; two different people, two different years,” Osman recalled. “I’m thankful that I made their day at least.”
Armed with his guitar and a sign that says “I busk to make the world a better place”, the singer-songwriter began busking five years ago.
What started out as a side job quickly evolved into a full time career as Osman discovered that he could make a living doing what he loved.
“Music makes me free,” he said. ”The feeling is just magical. I get to see different faces, make new friends… and sometimes just make someone’s day.”
As the pandemic brought a halt to live busking performances, Osman turned to a career as an electrical engineer to make ends meet.
However, he hopes to continue busking once restrictions lift, because it gives him the freedom to sing outside and get known.
“By busking, you’re not tied to anybody. It's like setting up a shop, everything you do is yours,” the musician described. “(It’s) very down to earth, I get to engage with the audience… I feel like I’m at the same level (as them). Which I’m happy about.”
JASON YU: "IT TAKES AWAY THE STRESS"
Now an established singer-songwriter, Jason Yu, 27, first turned to busking to jumpstart his music career.
“I started about five years ago, right after ORD-ing,” he explained. “I’ve always wanted to get into music… but I never really put myself out there because I was too unprepared and too scared to approach a bar and ask them if a slot is available.”
At the time, busking presented a less intimidating option for him as a budding artiste.
“It takes away the stress because when you’re busking, you don’t really have to pander to anyone… You’re just going out there and performing, no one has to watch you… there’s just no expectations.”
Having recently released his own EP, Yu noted that busking has been a viable way for him to gain a foothold in the music industry.
“Busking itself was a great marketing tool because I was literally a standing advertisement,” he said, noting that he used to regularly perform to a crowd of 50 to 100 people.
“Before I started busking I never thought that would be possible… From there I kind of built a following and an audience.”
Speaking to aspiring musicians, he said, “Busking is an amazing way for anyone to get started, because the barrier of entry is really low.”
“It’s really accessible, even to beginners. If you're somewhat good and somewhat talented, you can start attracting attention to your art and your performance already.”
How do you get started in busking?
- Complete and send in your application to the National Arts Council (NAC) at http://www.nac.gov.sg/Busking
- Attend a pre-audition briefing
- Audition for your Busking Card. Busking acts can range anywhere from street theatre to visual arts
- You’re set! Once you’re endorsed under the busking scheme, you can perform on the streets as long as you display your Busking Card
EUNICE AMOR OH: "YOU GET TO CREATE THAT SPACE THAT PEOPLE CAN STEP INTO"
“During my first time busking, there was an old man who plucked a flower from the bushes along the road and gave it to me.”
When Eunice Amor Oh, 23, first started busking at 18 years old, one thing that surprised her was how supportive Singapore’s crowds could be.
“There was one time before my ‘A’ Level results, I was very nervous… and was speaking about it on the mic,” she said. “This bunch of guys came up and they gave me a letter. In the letter was money and a letter of encouragement telling me that it’ll be fine.”
“That really lifted my spirits… It was a very heartwarming experience that I don’t think I would have had outside of busking.”
In order to raise enough funds for university, Oh began busking nearly four years ago while working two other jobs.
Once school started, her busking sets were interspersed with performances at weddings and events.
Despite other performance and career opportunities, Oh decided that she wanted to return to busking after finishing her degree.
“Busking is just a whole other experience that cannot be replaced in any way," the singer said. "The people that I get to meet on the ground, the conversations I get to have, these small things are things that I don’t experience as much on stage or when I’m performing elsewhere.”
Speaking about how busking contributes to Singapore’s landscape, she said, “When it comes to busking you get to create that space… that experience that people can step into.”
“It’s like (buskers) are inviting you into their home, you enter it and you witness a whole other world.”
She added, “I personally hope for more young people to see busking as something that they can do... (that) more people can see it as something that is exciting and rewarding. I think many people are not used to putting themselves out there, especially in Singapore.”
JONATHAN GOH: "SHE SAID SHE SMILED FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A FEW MONTHS"
It’s not every day you come face to face with a homegrown circus artist.
Before the pandemic, Jonathan Goh, busker and co-chair of Buskers Association Singapore, used to busk full time along Orchard Road and Clarke Quay.
“I mainly do circus performances. So we do juggling, acrobatics, sometimes stuff that risks my life,” the 25-year-old smiled, breaking down an act that involves juggling knives while balancing a board rolling on top of a tin.
“I really enjoy (busking). There’s so much stuff that I see in the street versus, say, a corporate show.”
Over the years, Goh has witnessed a growing demand for his circus act, fielding performance offers from Esplanade and different corporations.
In spite of this, he treasures busking because of the intimacy it creates with his audiences.
“Kids coming up to me saying they enjoyed my show, or a family coming down specially for my show... that's what I treasured a lot,” he said.
Goh even recalled an incident where one audience member dropped him a message on Facebook after a set, saying that it saved her life.
“She said that she smiled for the first time in a few months, and (before that) she almost wanted to end things.”
“These are moments that tell me why I do what I do. That keeps me going whenever I feel like giving up… (remembering) that someone out there will benefit from watching (my) show.”
Since the busking ban, the performer has turned to food delivery as his main source of income.
Knowing the challenges that buskers face, Goh started Buskers Association Singapore to act as a voice and source of support for buskers.
"What I would always tell aspiring buskers is that, if they want to try busking, they have to just do it!"
He added, "It’s as easy as just applying for the endorsement and heading down to the street... If you have no idea where to start, there is always a busker somewhere in Singapore who is willing to share with you, just message them or talk to them."
If you want to catch some buskers in action, the Buskers’ Association Singapore have lined up nightly performances this month at Our Tampines Hub Festive Plaza, from Dec 24 to 26.