Buskers Of The TTC—Print Issue 2016

Story and Photos by Rachel Evangeline Chiong, Cover Photo of Dieufaite

This article originally appeared in demo 12, our 2015/2016 print issue. You can find a PDF of the print issue here.

They are the distant echoes teasing the edges of your ears, instantly spiking your senses as you turn the corner and try to sate that universal excitement of not knowing what to expect. Buskers are the gems of the city, unique to their own neighbourhoods; they offer a service entirely different from any other. But depending on the person you are, you’ve either stopped to listen to the rest of their song while fumbling around awkwardly for change, or you’ve tried to pass them with as little eye contact as possible. These interactions with the city’s jewels are usually the limit to our knowledge of what it’s like to be a busker.

This is why I interviewed three of them. Rene is a flautist who underwent a motherhood hiatus from music, but since her daughter grew up, she’s been riding the jazz train through Humber College, has performed for people in shelters, and has taught professionally. Known fondly as “the piano man” among commuters, Dieufaite was raised in an orphanage after his parents passed away at age four. He flew to Canada to leave behind the tragedies in Haiti and continue kindling his love with the music that he had discovered during his childhood at the orphanage. Finally, Lili, a student at the University of Toronto, confessed jokingly that she lives a double life, rigorously study piano in school but switching her grand for an accordion when she busks. Besides being buskers in Toronto, they all have the privilege to perform in the TTC.

Most people aren’t aware that there’s a distinction between TTC buskers and street buskers. Through a project initiated by the Ontario government in 1979, buskers undergo a rigorous process every three years to obtain one of 83 available slots. Dieufaite explained that you would be judged by a panel of professionals to assess musical, performance, and business experience. Rene admitted that she got lucky this time around; she had happened to glance at a newspaper advertisement for the auditions the very day that they were taking place. It had been nerve-racking, she said, to be one among two hundred applicants required to impress an outdoor audience in the seven minutes provided.

Spending time against a wall facing the ever-changing audience of Toronto can begin to expose the interesting sides of the community. Lili revealed the quirkier experiences: there were extra energetic people who took the opportunity to feature themselves in her sets by impromptu and unconsented accompaniments, including singing and dancing. Afterwards, they would assure Lili that they had simply done her a favour and didn’t need to be paid, although Lili recalled receiving significantly less money during the time they performed with her. On other days, she received too much: once, a man carrying groceries had stopped to listen to her and expressed his appreciation by giving Lili a fruit after every song. Eventually she had an ample collection of fresh produce at her feet.

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Dieufaite highlights the more sobering experiences while busking in a city that was bound to have a darker side among the mix of people streaming back and forth on the subway system. Unfortunately, many still view buskers as homeless layabouts and treat them as such. There had been times, Dieufaite said, when people suffering from addiction or mental health issues had attacked him, which explained why security usually lingered nearby.

Rene, however, had a story to share: a while back, there had been a lady who stayed for her entire set, staring trancelike as she listened. Eventually, when the set ended, the lady gave Rene a bottle of water and moved on. Years later, the woman contacted Rene explaining that she had saved her life — that day years back, she had made up her mind to commit suicide after losing both her house and her husband in the span of a few days. Rene’s performance had given her the hope she drastically needed, and soon after, she decided to follow her dreams and open a dance studio. Recounting the story brought a shaky laugh from Rene, as she confessed that she couldn’t tell the story without getting teary-eyed — if this was what busking could do, then it was very much worth it.

Busking seemed to reap rewards like no other branch in the music industry. There was something about people’s faces, Lili explained, something about how they emerged from the subway stairs and their smiles lit up as they heard the music. When people had begun apologizing profusely for having no change to show their appreciation, Lili put up a sign in good humour which read, “Now accepting compliments.” Despite the energy it took to continuously entertain people, Dieufaite said that it was clear that his music had impacted people somehow, and knowing that strangers enjoyed the sound of it made him feel good. Among the gig opportunities and surprising amount of income from the constant crowds of people, Rene said that busking was always a fulfilling experience, from self-improvement to the brightening of another person’s day.

When asked if busking would still be part of their lives years into the future, all three said yes. Perhaps it would not be as central as currently, but it always would have its own corner in their lives, much like they do in their city. Whether you’re skipping stairs to catch your bus at Islington or wheeling around crowds at Bloor-Yonge, keep your ears peeled for a busker and take a moment to appreciate their craft and their lives — you may even run into Lili, Rene, or Dieufaite.


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