The lyrics of The Crusaders’ Street Life song depict the spirit and mood of the artists on the streets of Barcelona. Recently I spent some time absorbing the atmosphere, culture and way of life of the street artists in this vibrant city.
‘I play the street life because there’s no place I can go
Street life, it’s the only life I know
Street life and there’s a thousand cards to play
Street life, until you play your life away’
The Crusaders – Street Life Lyrics
The streets of Barcelona are a hub of creative activity. There is no end to the varied entertainment they have to offer. There is enough entertainment on the streets alone to wander around and explore.
A city whose streets stand on the architectural legacy of Gaudí, now in a similar way its streets are filled with street performers with their own artistic power. Audiences made up of locals and tourists are curious to find out how they can be entertained, inspired and challenged as they explore the streets of this vibrant city.
There is a constant air of hustle and bustle, even the sky activity is vibrating with planes flying in and out of Barcelona every five minutes. Tourists throng to Barcelona to experience the strong cultural heritage in the fields of theatre, visual arts and contemporary music.
One of the major attractions of Barcelona’s main thoroughfare, the famous La Rambla, is watching the numerous street performers – musicians and of course the renowned human statues. Whether famous or infamous, when you think of the city of Barcelona, La Rambla comes to mind. It stretches over one kilometer from Placa Catalunya to Port Vell. La Rambla is a hive of activity. It is a whole new world to explore and observe. La Rambla has so many attractions to satisfy touristic needs, from caricatures, paintings, stalls selling merchandise, to the very end of the pedestrian mall, where the amazing human statues stand.
I spoke to one of La Ramblas oldest statues – Karen Valderrama or “Guardian of the Sky” as she is known on La Rambla. Valderrama moved to Barcelona from Argentina over 15 years ago and has been working on La Rambla ever since. Before this she was a ballerina. Her theatrical performance is evidently incorporated into her art.
“All people in the world talk about La Rambla and its statues. I believe life is what you make of it, if you do things good then you get it back and that is why I love this job.”
Entertaining is a full time job for the statue artists like Valderrama and it provides a sufficient income to make a living. La Rambla is the perfect setting for the expression of this art. The statues can perform all year round, even in the winter, as the tree-lined boulevard provides shelter in all seasons. These artists rely on the generosity of the audiences and accept tips in exchange for their entertainment.
The human statues are regulated through the City Council. The artists pay an annual tax of 200 euro and are allowed to perform for six hours a day. Three years ago the government decided to reduce the number of human statues on La Rambla by 30 per cent. This reduction is noticeable as there are now fewer statues for tourists to observe.
The human statues are not the only artists feeling the pinch of the government’s intervention. The buskers of Barcelona are also being hit with the new rules. The street musicians are scattered around the city but there is a lot of order and regulation involved in where they can perform. The street musicians are split into two groups: the street performers and the underground performers. Even the word “busker” originates from the Spanish word “buscar” meaning to wander or to seek.
Rubén H is the president of the Associacion de Musicos de la Calle (AMUC), the association for underground musicians in Barcelona. Since 2007 there have been a total of 540 members of the association. At the moment there are 100 members that actively preform in the underground. Once you become a member you are never forgotten and although a musician may not continue to perform, they are still registered with the association if they ever decide to return. The association consists of members from all over the world.
The selection process for musicians takes place every year. An independent school of music hosts the exam. There is no council, institution or buskers judging in the selection process. Every busker has to show their own list of 20 songs and perform three from that list. Last year 59 new musicians were selected to join the underground performers.
Rubén admitted that he chose this career at the age of 18 to “run away from home.” This is almost an escape mechanism for the musicians where they can let go of their worries and become stars of the streets, and to charge them for this would be a personal insult.
There is a strong sense of community spirit involved in how these buskers operate. In order to gain access to the hall to hold their meeting the AMUC helped organize a street festival for children in which some of the buskers performed. This was in conjunction with Foment Martinenc which is the oldest organization in Barcelona set up in 1877. It is non-profit organization and aims to promote education for workers. The AMUC have held over 100 events similar to this, bringing together the communities in the city providing entertainment and in turn gaining much needed appreciation and support for what they do.
At the moment the government is attempting to introduce a tax of 200 euro for the street musicians. The AMUC are opposing this as they feel that it will ultimately destroy what they do. For the performers this is not about the money, they feel that the introduction of this fee will lead to further charging and regulation in the future.
“You cannot just tell someone that they are not allowed to perform in a public space, to do this and to charge us money would destroy the spontaneity of our performances, people who think us buskers make a lot of money are wrong. This is not about the money. We are doing this because we are musicians and for us there is no other outlet. The streets are our stage and we feel like we give a lot to the city with our music,” says Rubén.
It seems somewhat unfair that these street musicians are being targeted, yet all over the city, traders are constantly harassing pedestrians and tourists offering alcohol and drugs. The art form that the musicians have to offer is more enjoyable and less intrusive than constantly being offered “beer, water, mojito?” to an audience who are trying to relax.
Everywhere around Barcelona there are people with guitars singing to themselves but if their sound is being amplified and there is a question of them receiving money for their art then they must be regulated by the government.
It is clear that this type of street activity is unique to Barcelona, but with the way the government is intervening it seems this art form may be at risk of losing its raw edge.