As I walked through Christchurch's abandoned streets on a chilly, stony gray night in late January, the multiple signs outside shops & cafes emblazoned with "Welcome buskers!" or "Busking Special" baffled me. I had no idea that buskers were such a huge market for cafe-style snacks or tourist wares and couldn't figure out why they'd been singled out over any other random group in the city. Then, as I wandered past Victoria Square, all of my questions were answered with just one sign: a banner that said "World Buskers Festival, January 2008."
Unknowingly, I'd stumbled off of the plane and into the city in the middle of the largest buskers festival in the world. The festival buys plane tickets for buskers from around the world to perform in venues around the city for ten days...but it does not pay them. Each busker still relies on his respective show to impress the crowd enough that they pay for the entertainment. As I found out in the later weeks of my travels, many of the buskers often move on to smaller busking festivals around New Zealand before returning home. Nelson was one of the many cities that I arrived in only days after the buskers had packed up and moved on.
The entertainment had wrapped up for the night by the time I realized what was going on, which was probably best given the dreariness of the evening. The first show I witnessed was the next morning, near the Peacock Fountain at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. As I mentioned in my Botanic Gardens entry, I knew long before I actually arrived at the fountain that busking had started, because the sound of cheering and loud voices lingered over even the more remote sections of the gardens. This particular venue was for children-oriented shows (like my friend The Fairy Queen performed so well last year at Brisbane's Ekka), and the show I saw involved hula hoops and tossing rings to be caught on people's hats. The children thought Dick & Jane were a riot--I did find them rather amusing as well--but since I had limited time, I moved on to check out the performances oriented towards older age groups.
Victoria Square was swarming when I arrived at about noon. Stalls were set up everywhere selling typical festival fare (which were typically overpriced). The main show in the Victoria Square Amphitheatre was The Great Dave, who ended up tearing off his stage outfit to reveal a "flattering" lycra jumpsuit, donning a flat-top bellboy-style cap, recruiting an audience member to throw dishes at him, and then hopping onto a unicycle. It was pretty impressive when he managed to catch a saucer, cup, and spoon and then toss them with his foot onto his head, where they balanced while he rode back and forth on his unicycle. That's certainly a lot more talent than I have!
Other acts were performing or set up all around Victoria Square. "The Confessional" was set up near the food stalls, and all I can really remember from that is that the guy reminded me very much of Dave Chappelle. Green! was quite striking--he was completely painted green and sitting still as a...well...rock painted green.
In Cathedral Square, I watched the majority of Mr. Bunk's show before having to head back to the hostel to pick up my gear for the ride to Akaroa. Mr. Bunk was quite like another character called "Mister"--Mr. Bean, that is. He didn't speak until his show was over and he implored anyone that enjoyed his show to donate. Before that, he only spoke in grunts and Sims-style noises while directing various audience members across the stage and into hilarious poses.
Two days later, I transited through Christchurch on my way from Akaroa to Kaikoura, and I luckily had just enough time between buses to see the Piano Juggler. He, too, was performing in the big circle just outside the Cathedral, and had an even bigger crowd than Mr. Bunk had attracted the day before; this was possibly because Mr. Bunk was hilarious, but the Piano Juggler just left everyone in awe. Besides the fact that he could juggle 7 balls at a time, he could also play songs on his piano with his juggling balls. A spoil-sport on YouTube has commented that it's all fake, but it looked real to me and really left me in awe, and that's all that mattered to me.
I was really glad that I happened to be in Christchurch at just the right time--although some people later on my trip tried to convince me that "just the right time" would have been a few days later when Bon Jovi was performing (for a whopping $100 a ticket instead of the cost of a few donations). I just wish I could have stayed for the whole day so I could have caught all of the performers--the Space Cowboy in particular--that the whole town was buzzing about!
The World Buskers Festival is held every January in Christchurch. In 2008, buskers invaded the city from January 17-27. The writer saw shows on January 23 and 25.