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Online and on air, but buskers still waiting to perform live

While Singapore is opening up, live outdoor performances remain banned. Some buskers have turned to other jobs while others persist in performing – in whatever form they can.

Online and on air, but buskers still waiting to perform live

The Annoying Brothers, comprising Jonathan Goh and Edwin Ong, performing on Orchard Road before the pandemic. (Photo: Orchard Road Business Association)

SINGAPORE: Busker and circus performer Jonathan Goh felt frustrated when he cycled along Orchard Road last Christmas. 

The crowds were there and so was his “stage”, but instead of wowing the shoppers with his juggling and acrobatics, he was delivering food, the 25-year-old told CNA.

While there was hope earlier this year that things may return to normal, renewed spikes in COVID-19 cases repeatedly dashed the hopes of performers like him.

It has been 18 months since Singapore’s “circuit breaker” in April last year, but Mr Goh and other buskers have yet to get the go-ahead to perform on the streets.

They have not stood still – some turned to virtual performances, some went on TV and some pivoted to other trades. Meanwhile, Mr Goh started an association to represent the community and wants to nudge fellow buskers to explore their art form.

Whatever they chose, the young buskers CNA spoke to said that the desire to perform live was still strong. 

TAKING THE LEAP ONLINE

Mr Cliff Lee, who goes by the moniker “OFFTHECLIFF”, remembers how he sang his heart out during his last busking session – belting out songs for more than four hours near Holland Drive Food Centre.

“I felt my life just crumble, it felt like it was the end for me,” he said, when he heard that busking had to stop along with live events. “But music cannot stop, because I think it’s essential.”

On Mar 29 last year, he streamed his first online busking performance on Facebook, asking for tips via digital payments. 

Many buskers turned to online streaming in the initial period during the circuit breaker, but most have since stopped as the returns were paltry compared to before. 

Mr Lee, 33, said that when people stayed home, he got a sizeable audience and reasonable earnings, but that tapered off once Phase 2 started in July 2020 and Singapore began gradually reopening.

There was a period where his earnings fell “almost to zero”, he said.

He started teaching music again and at his “lowest point”, he also started writing songs. “During that period I was very down so I started writing a song to encourage myself,” he said.

Busker Cliff Lee started writing songs during the pandemic. (Photo: Cliff Lee)

He persisted performing online daily for months, and still does livestreams regularly. Over time, he gained a following online, and on the suggestion of one of his fans, began selling CDs – something that he never imagined would be viable. He has sold more than 1,000 CDs so far, he said.

“You actually reach a whole audience that you’ll never meet on the streets,” he reflected.

“I MISS PERFORMING LIVE”

That’s not the case for Mr Lai Zi Jie, aka the Pudgy Busker, who used to perform regularly outside The Cathay.

“I did a few online recordings, a few online gigs, but to be honest, I'm not a huge fan … there's no interaction, you’re just playing to the camera,” said the 29-year-old.

Instead, he’s gone into something totally different – expanding a car grooming business. 

Busker Lai Zi Jie used to perform regularly outside The Cathay. He now runs a car grooming business but hopes to perform live again. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

Before COVID-19, Mr Lai focused on performing whether on the streets, at weddings or events. When the pandemic hit, he had to stop busking and about 30 wedding performances were cancelled. 

He had started a car grooming business as a safeguard against the vagaries of busking, but he’s now glad that he did.

“You don't dare put all your eggs in one basket, and busking is very volatile because you're dependent on the weather and if it’s the rainy season, you may have no income,” he said.

For now, he spends substantially more time on the business than on music. The income is much more stable than busking but the level of “fun and enjoyment … cannot fight”, he laughed.

“When music comes back. I will definitely pursue it ... with the car grooming company running as well. I miss performing live, definitely.”

FROM BUSKING TO BROADCAST

A year-and-a-half after he had to stop performing at Haji Lane, Mohamed Fairuz Abdul Rahim joined a song-writing competition broadcast on Malay TV channel Suria.

Projek Lagu got close to 200 submissions, and Mr Fairuz, with his friend Wawan Husen, a Suria star, were among 12 contestants who made it on air.

The duo made it through 10 episodes of the show to the finale on Nov 9 with four competitors but didn’t win the grand prize.

The song they entered in the competition Cuba Lagi (“Try Again” in Malay), was written a few years ago but has an uplifting message for these times.

“Basically, it's about life, you shouldn't give up hope even when COVID hits. So we need to keep on trying wherever it is,” said Mr Fairuz, 33.

“Just try and try, don’t give up … that’s the message behind the song.”

For the busker, who was a fixture at Haji Lane for a decade, losing that part of his life was a big blow and besides some music production, he’s also working as a kitchen assistant.

On top of that, he and other Haji Lane buskers are collaborating on an album, to be released next year. 

“We still need to move on and continue on with our lives. But busking is a really important part of my life,” he said. “I don’t know how other people see busking … for me, it’s really (my) passion.

“It's not only about money, but it's also about the connection between the performer and the audience.”

DELIVERING FOOD AND COMMUNITY

Busker Jonathan Goh, who is part of acrobatic duo The Annoying Brothers, said like other buskers, he picked up another job to make ends meet. But he has also been busy preparing for the eventual restart of street performances.

Back in 2016, he created the Singapore Buskers Facebook group which grew from five or six people to more than 500 today, not all of whom are buskers. 

There are about 300 buskers registered with the National Arts Council in Singapore, with one in two below 35 years old.

The Annoying Brothers performing at the Night Festival in 2017. (Photo: Singapore Art Musem)

Last year, Mr Goh started the Buskers’ Association which he described as the “NTUC”, or a union, for buskers.

A co-chair of the association, he feels that performing virtually is not sustainable, especially for acts like his. 

“The virtual space is now overly saturated,” he said, pointing out that even big stars held concerts online during the pandemic. 

“You can’t expect Ronaldo to play e-sports ... so why are you expecting the buskers to go become streamers?” he asked.

“You feel the adrenaline rush with the performer when you're in the same space.”

He’s now started a new programme called Buskers’ Lab, with funding from National Arts Council, to create a “safe, experimental space” so that the street performers can collaborate and create new, innovative acts.

“I can sing better, I can juggle better, but … what can we do to present it differently?” he said.

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, he’s pushing for the performances to be in an outdoor space and is applying for approval to stage a show with safe management measures in place, he said.

While there were busking pilots organised by the National Arts Council earlier, they have been suspended since community cases began rising around May this year and the first round of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) restrictions began.

This was a major disappointment for Mr Goh and many other buskers, who had hoped that some form of outdoor entertainment could resume after a year of not performing.

“Last year, everyone was patiently waiting … but this year, it was like someone is driving a car and keeps jamming the brakes.”

He said that some buskers are doing part-time jobs while waiting for things to get back to normal, while others have quit busking altogether. Some have had to dig deep into their savings, he said.

Meanwhile, he’s taking the opportunity to “create conversation” and make the community more tight-knit, he said.

“I think this is very important … If you have a segregated community, it's very, very hard for things to move forward."

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Source: CNA/hm(cy)

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