Go to most major cities and you’ll find them in pedestrian underpasses or on street corners, squares and malls and sometimes even in metro stations. You may be thinking of a variety of people; but we´re referring to buskers. Sometimes they can be a nuisance with their discordant renditions of Dylan songs, but other times they can be a delightful discovery while exploring a new city. Prague, a city with an obvious romantic backdrop, is unfortunately quiet in this area.
This sentiment is shared by Radomír, a Czech bagpipe (České dudy) player you’ll sometimes find playing on Charles Bridge.
“There are not enough good musicians on the streets. This city was built for music but the music is not here,” he says. The main reason he believes is the difficulty in acquiring the necessary permit.
The bagpipes Radomír plays differ from the typical variety in that they are arm-operated. One arm operates a bellows-like contraption which fills the bag, and the other arm squeezes the bag to make the noise. This operation frees the player to sing.
And what songs do Czech bagpipes accompany? Traditional Czech folk songs of course. Radomír mainly plays songs from Southern Bohemia, especially from the Chodsko and Strakonice regions. Dressed in traditional costume, Radomír stamps out a rhythm and smiles exuberantly to a sadly indifferent crowd.
“Today is not a good day. The weather. It’s windy. People were here before when it was nice,” he says. To be fair; he’s right. It’s a blustery, overcast day on the bridge and it’s understandable that people stop for a quick photo then bustle off.
There’s no denying that he offers an authentic cultural touch to this favorite tourist spot. Tradition is not the only reason he chose this instrument. He says there were many reasons but when he searches for one he chooses “destiny,” gives that same exuberant smile and says, “I can say destiny.”
Anyone who has passed through Old Town Square more than likely knows this street performer. Often wearing his trademark black hat and suit, he plays saxophone and trombone to pre-recorded music, occasionally putting the instrument aside to sing out to the curious and the genuinely entertained. Meet Vladimír Pinta.
Based on the French and Russian newspaper clippings posted at Mr. Pinta’s usual performance spot near St. Nicholas Church, his star shines beyond the center of Prague. But there is one nation which especially takes Pinta to their heart.
“Mainly the Italians [are interested]. The Spanish too, but most of all the Italians. They really get into it. They sing and dance,” Pinta says. We don’t have to wait long before a group of young Italians come along. He plays the Italian standard “Volare” and soon four teenage girls join him. Their presence draws more people. Soon the biggest crowd seen this afternoon comes to watch.
But it’s not only the crowd who get a kick out of it.
“It pleases me to see so many people enjoying themselves and dancing because so many people walk around with their chins so low,” Pinta says.
Pinta has been playing music since he was three, when he first started on the violin. He soon discovered he hated it and moved on to almost everything else. Brass instruments proved to be his main affinity. For a time, he worked in a juvenile detention center where by his own reckoning he was a popular teacher. Apart from the Italian number, his repertoire is mostly swing and his own compositions. He’s had offers to play in clubs but doesn’t like the smoke or drunk people, so is resigned to play on the Old Town Square. If you are a Pinta fan, or want to be, there’s a FaceBook club to join.
On a fine day, as you wander through the historical center you might find yourself imagining – if only for a fleeting moment – that you’re in another city and era. If so, it is because you’ve caught tunes from the Bridge Band who has brought some New Orleans spice to the heart of Europe for nearly 20 years.
As their name implies, you are most likely to find them performing on Charles Bridge, usually from 1pm to 3:30pm, though they don´t play here exclusively. The line-up appears to change, though the core players of banjo, tuba, trumpet and a very dexterous washboard player are often there. All of them have been playing music since childhood.
One definite constant is that no matter where they play, they liven up the place with their mixture of jazz standards from the twenties and thirties along with original material. We spoke with trumpet player Jiří Patócs to find out more about Bridge Band´s popularity. Patócs confirms what we´ve seen and that it is the up-beat vibe they create when they play that keeps people around.
“The audience is instantly in a good mood. They start to kick up their heels and dance. Visitors returning to Prague never stop asking when we will release a new CD. Presidents from various countries have applauded us. Our singer and song-writer Jan Křtitel Novák even ended up in a Japanese comic,” he says.
We ask Patócs if jazz is a part of Prague´s atmosphere. “Why shouldn´t happy music be associated with Prague? Should Prague be sad, serious and dowdy?” Given the response of the crowds, we believe most people agree.
If you harbor ambitions to busk in Prague, you will need a permit. Each city quarter issues permits for itself. So, separate permits would be required for Prague 1 and 2. I´ve focused on this quarter because it has the crowds.
Once you´ve obtained an application form take it to the traffic department of Prague 1. Along with the form you will need a copy of your trade license and other documents proving who you are. The fees are then based on the area and the number of days. Each permit is only granted for a month. The district of Prague 1 also determines where buskers can play, which according to an email from them are the Old Town Square, the adjacent Malé Náměstí, Nerudova Street and Charles Bridge. The maximum time you can play is 2 hours.
Busking isn´t all sunshine and happy crowds. In Prague, it does have its down side. There was a classical violinist who had been playing around Prague metro stations for a while and who could provide another musical perspective on performing in the city. I went back to the Budějovická metro station, where I had seen him a couple of days prior, but he wasn’t there. When I asked a shop assistant if she had seen him, she told me the police had taken him away.
Aspiring to be a busker? Have a favorite Prague street performer? Tell us about it!