‘Out of tune and out of key’: Covent Garden’s buskers fight back against bid to silence them

<span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

The incongruously tropical sounds of The Girl From Ipanema float through the chill afternoon air in Covent Garden as shoppers pass a couple of buskers performing an inspired rendition of the bossa nova classic.

In front of the young singer and the guitarist accompanying her is the guitar’s case, holding a handful of coins. Little is added to it as they run through Misty, Fly Me to the Moon and a haunting Silent Night. But their efforts aren’t unappreciated. Dancing around them are twins Hubert and Harold Pereira, connoisseurs of street performers. Hubert says London has good ones, but in New York and other US cities, “they’re better because they’re bigger”.

A ban totally disregards the professionalism of what we do. We’ve got safety protocols and we’re all insured in case something goes wrong

He’s referring to the way that, across the Atlantic, entire bands, with elaborate sound systems, play on the streets. In central London, by contrast, there are moves afoot to limit street performers in terms of sound and the space they occupy, and to enforce prohibitions on the use of “naked flames, pyrotechnics, fireworks, knives, sharp objects or similar”.

Next week, Westminster councillors will meet to discuss tightening the regulation of buskers. A system of licensing introduced in April 2021 has not stemmed the flow of complaints about noise and disturbance.

Inside Rituals beauty shop, the jazz duo outside can be heard quite clearly, but the manager, Poppy Constable, isn’t worried.

Man in white shirt and waistcoat holds three knives
Richard Filby says the prospect of a council ban on the knives he uses in his juggling act is a ‘looming cloud’. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Personally, I think busking is a lovely tradition,” she says. “From a business point of view, it can be difficult when I’m talking to customers, but I think other things cause a lot more noise pollution. I just think it’s a happy thing when people showcase their talent.”

One person who does resent the noise is fellow street performer Daniel the Magician, who asks the guitarist to turn down his volume so it doesn’t drown out his own act. “The problem is the buskers with licences,” says Daniel. “They play as loud as they want, and no one does anything about them.”

Most of the acts in Covent Garden don’t have Westminster council’s perform licence; instead they self-regulate under the aegis of the Covent Garden Street Performers Association. They’re proud of being part of a tradition that dates back centuries, at least to the days of Samuel Pepys and probably much further. They say Westminster is targeting them unfairly, as most complaints, they say, concern musicians in Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

Richard Filby’s juggling and comedy act, performed on the expansive cobbled space in front of the Inigo Jones-designed actors’ church, St Paul’s, involves the sorts of sharp knives that make Westminster councillors nervous. “It’s a real looming cloud,” he says of the mooted regulation enforcement.

Filby, who started out in Queensland, Australia, 15 years ago performs in Covent Garden daily: it is his main source of income. His act theoretically contravenes several Westminster regulations, but he’s particularly miffed about the prohibition on knives.

“It totally disregards the professionalism of what we do,” he says. “We’ve got safety protocols, we’ve got experience, and we’re all insured in case something goes wrong. There’s never been a complaint about safety in my act.”

On the other side of the piazza, Daniel, who is originally from Poland, is stuffing a long balloon down his throat while calling out to passersby. “Hi Dad,” he shouts at an older man standing with his wife. “You’re out of prison! Great. But who’s that woman? She’s not Mum.”

There’s a flutter of laughter as several audience members drift away. It’s a tough way to earn money: you have first to stop the audience and then keep them away from warm shop interiors until it comes to passing the hat around. Daniel says the stress made him stop doing it full-time.

Nowadays, many people don’t carry cash, so performers offer card-reading machines. Daniel asks for a £5 or £10 contribution, a request most of the audience feel able to resist. “Today’s not a good day,” he says.

man and woman with busker in the background
Michael Umama from Colombia thinks street theatre is a test of talent. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

One onlooker, Michael Umama from Colombia, says the level of street performance is very high in London because it’s a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest environment. “It’s a real test of character and talent,” he says. “If you restrict these people, you’re cutting the wings of somebody who has something to offer to the world.”

But what of those perhaps not destined to fly high? In Piccadilly Circus, a young man with a microphone and a loud backing track is murdering Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars.

A few feet away is the Criterion theatre, where David Gore sits in the ticket office. He’s all in favour of buskers, and the theatre supports all forms of creative art, but he laments the lack of quality control.

“That guy is out of tune and out of key. Everyone turns the volume up to 11, and it’s all day the same four songs. All those songs you used to like? I now hate them.”

Lowering the volume might be a feasible ambition for Westminster. But unless Simon Cowell becomes a councillor, there’s no regulating for talent.