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Festival brings music to streets of Neuchatel

The ultimate busker: "Daddy Multiplex" manages to handle six instruments at the same time. Agence Plateau Libre

Georges Grillon is a man with a mission. Every summer, he assembles as many talented musicians as he can to liven up the streets of Neuchatel.

The lakeside canton’s capital is an ideal setting for street musicians, boasting a large pedestrian zone running up from the lake towards the imposing castle on the hill. With café terraces and market squares along the way, it’s the perfect territory for buskers.

Grillon got the idea at the end of the 1980s, after a friend told him about a similar festival held in Ferrara in Italy. “I went to have a look,” he says. “And the atmosphere was so good that I thought: why not in Neuchatel?

“We’ve always had buskers here. The police are pretty open about people making music in the streets. The only rule is that they should move on to a different pitch after half an hour, so the people in the shops and offices don’t get tired of hearing the same music all day!”

The first Neuchatel festival took place in 1990. For this year’s event, the 11th, Grillon has assembled a collection of 12 solo musicians, groups, and street performers.

Passers-by can enjoy anything from Mongolian throat singing, courtesy of the group Egschiglen, who are back in Neuchatel for the third time, to Irish folk played by Neuchatel’s own Elandir.

The festival combines the spontaneity of conventional busking, where the performer sets up on a street corner and tries to draw a crowd, with the quality and organisation of a planned festival, with a programme and sponsors.

The buskers are allocated a pitch in the pedestrian zone, which they rotate with one of the other groups. This allows them to take a break, but keeps the music going non-stop.

Although their expenses, food and accommodation are covered by the festival organisers, the musicians aren’t paid. In keeping with the busking tradition, they play acoustic instruments, and make their money by passing round a hat, and selling cassettes and CDs.

The groups that come to Neuchatel are a healthy mix of professionals and amateurs. “Lots of buskers these days are semi-professional musicians,” says Grillon. “They play in a normal group, in concert venues or bars, but in the summer they like to go out on the streets to play to a different public.”

It’s a view echoed by Swiss musician, “Jean20” Huguenin, a guitarist backed by a double bass put together with a plastic wastebin, a broom and a washing line: “I usually play in concert venues, but I first came to the festival here in 1998. I like busking in the summer since it gives me a chance to try things out, as if I’m practising on the public! But this public hasn’t paid for a ticket, so if they don’t like you they walk away.”

Ania Witczak is the singer-accordionist from the Polish ensemble, Dikanda, who describe their style as “Music from all over the East”. They play anything from traditional Polish folk to Jewish, Gypsy, Ukrainian and Balkan music.

“The thing about busking is that people only listen to you when they want to,” she says. “When you don’t use amplifiers you have better contact with the crowd. They don’t know who you are, so everything’s in the music.”

One of the most unusual acts at this year’s festival is provided by the Dutch musician, Daddy Multiplex. Imagine a piano, barrel organ, bass, cymbals and washboard welded to a tricycle, and you get an idea of Multiplex’s act.

“I know guys who have a real double bass, and they’re jealous of mine. It sounds as good as a real one,” he says.

It’s a mystery how Multiplex manages to play all his tricycle’s instruments, along with a baby tuba and harmonica, as well as sing along, but he turns out a solid “trad” jazz performance.

Multiplex likes Swiss audiences. “Over here you are treated as an artist, with a certain status. In the Netherlands musicians don’t get as much respect! But the Swiss crowds aren’t as expressive as the ones back home.”

The Buskers Festival has developed enough of a reputation to attract musicians who are not part of the “official” event. Georges Grillon says he doesn’t mind other groups joining in, since it gives him a chance to check out new talent.

Glancing over at a group from France, which is tuning up to play a sped-up version of Jewish Klezmer music, he says: “I like them. I think I’ll ask them to play in the festival next year.”

The Buskers Festival runs in Neuchatel until August 19, with performances from 1630 onwards.

by Jonathan Fowler

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR