Melbourne Buskers Foster Old Arts

Kaoru Oiwa and friend Kuriko, Photo by Ellen Wu
Kaoru Oiwa and friend Kuriko, Photo by Ellen Wu

Beto Chinguel’s panflute rises over the bustle of Bourke St, the melodic sound gliding through cold June weather.

Wearing a “traditional multi-coloured” jacket with ‘Peru’ in bright, bold letters printed across the front, Beto certainly doesn’t blend into the steady stream of black and grey suits.

Melbourne may be turning into an unwitting public space for traditional art forms lost in the contemporary age.

The CBD is one of the top three most encouraging cities for buskers according to a report released by The Busking Project last month.

The report ‘Beat of the Street’ commissioned by Tullamore D.E.W Irish Whiskey evaluated the busking culture and policies of 35 cities around the globe.

The panflute or ‘andes panpipe’ is an instrument with a series of pipes varying in length, usually made from bamboo.

According to the traditionalist Romanian musician Ion Preda, the panflute is a celebrated instrument in a variety of regions including Latin America, Egypt, Japan and China.

“I grew up in a small village,” Beto says as he shows me photos of his hometown San Minguel de El Faique. “During the full moon we would play the flute as a harvest ceremony to help crops grow.”

Traditionally used in Greek religion and mythology, the word ‘panflute’ is derived from the God of Pan or the God of Nature.

While panflute ceremonies were believed to ensure healthy potato growth in the Huancabamba province, Beto says nowadays the music is used as a show for tourists.

He says the panflute played a significant role in Peruvian history and culture, but isn’t as appreciated in Peru by the younger generation.

Beto plays the panflute with his eyes closed, as if he’s trying to block out the rest of the rushed

photo courtesy of Beto Chinguel
photo courtesy of Beto Chinguel


“The panflute is part of my culture’s tradition, but the new generation is not interested in it. So my style of music is starting to disappear,” he says.

“I moved to Melbourne 10 years ago to be part of its culture and to celebrate my music.”

“In Peru you can’t busk on the streets, only in restaurants. Melbourne busking is more personal, you can make more connections.”

Beto says Australians are always welcoming and curious about his music which makes him feel “happy inside”.

“For me it’s not just entertainment, it’s part of my culture. It’s part of my life.”

And as Melbourne’s winter rain rushes to meet the street, Beto says he does really love Melbourne. Just not “the weather”.

have only been busking a few times.

The Japanese pair use confident, light strokes on thick paper, reflecting years of calligraphy practice.

Kaoru explains the different types of calligraphy brushes with blackened hands.

“In Japanese these are called ‘fude’,” she says, displaying her favourite brush. “Most are made from bamboo but the real difference is the hair of the brush.”

“Some people pay more than $100 for a single fude.”

Kaoru has never seen a busker in her hometown Nagoya, but says that’s because it is “much smaller” than Melbourne.

“I love busking in Melbourne,” the 27 year-old says. “When I write Kanji I feel connected to Japan. I feel so calm and relaxed.”

People are always curious because they don’t understand the language, and this allows new relationships to form, she says.

But sometimes she feels like there is a cultural gap.

“I think some people are afraid to get too involved in our busking,” Kaoru says. “I like talking to people and having a chat, so it’s sad sometimes.”

She cites the Australian habit of saying “eh?” when confused, explaining that in Japan this is very rude.

“I am getting used to it, but it was very strange at first,” she says.

Kaoru says with the growth of technology, calligraphy is becoming less and less popular and is sometimes seen as “old-fashioned” in Japan.

“I think it’s very traditional and worth learning. My mother asked me to learn when I was young and I’m glad she did. It’s very beautiful,” she says.

The 4000 year-old style of writing became popular in Japan around 600 AD, although it is still taught as a form of art in Japanese high schools.

Some Japanese universities including Tokyo Gakugei University and Fukuoka University of Education have whole departments dedicated to the practice of calligraphy.

Shanghai-born Wei Shen struggles with English, so his 50 year-old son translates for me.

Wei Shen, photo by Ellen Wu
Wei Shen, photo by Ellen Wu

Shen moved to Melbourne 10 years ago, and has been busking with his erhu for about three years.

The nearly 80 year-old describes busking as his “passion” since retiring from his day job.

“I live in Australia so I want to contribute to the environment and culture,” he says. “Busking also gives me a chance to practice my instrument.”

His son James, who is excited to be involved in the interview, says his father meets a “lot of friends and musicians on the street”.

“The erhu originates from Mongolia but the Chinese adopted the instrument and made it smaller so it could be carried around crowded cities,” James says. “It’s like a fiddle but with only two strings.”

Australians think the Erhu produces a wonderful sound, and this positive feedback drives him more than any money could, Shen says.

“I did not busk in Shanghai,” he says. “It is not considered performance there, it is considered begging.”

Shen says he originally began busking in Melbourne to practice for his granddaughter, and because of the community’s positive reception he hopes to continue for a few more years.

“I love sharing my instrument with Melbourne because it’s something different that people don’t usually see,” he says.


Ellen Seah

Author: Ellen Seah

Ellen Wu is an Australian RMIT journalism student. Ellen was born in Melbourne but her parents are immigrants from Malaysia and China. She volunteers on SYN community radio and writes for Digital Niche's online blog. You can follow Ellen on Twitter @Ellen_RMITLS

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