Street music

Halifax’s buskers left out in the cold

Treeman takes a break from playing for tourists on the boardwalk on Thanksgiving Monday. After the cruise ships leave, he says he won’t return until next spring.
Treeman takes a break from playing for tourists on the boardwalk on Thanksgiving Monday. After the cruise ships leave, he says he won’t return until next spring.   Shelby Bona

Treeman sits on a curb on the Halifax waterfront on a blustery Saturday. He strums tunes for the passers-by on a small harp he bought on Kijiji. He’s been busking in Halifax for the last three summers. But the weather is starting to shift and the money isn’t flowing in as steadily as it used to.

Treeman chose busking so he could play the type of music he wanted to.

“I started with guitar, then bongos,” he says as he squints in the bright afternoon sun. “I switched to the harp a couple years ago. I wanted to try something different, but I still wanted to play something with strings.”

He says that when he started, the waterfront was his favourite place to play in Halifax. It was the area of the city where people seemed fascinated by what he was doing. As if to emphasize this, a woman stands close by, listening as he plays random notes.

“Well it’s not every day you see a guy playing a harp. It’s really cool,” she says.

But she’s one of a few people who even glance at him. It would be easy to blame this on the weather. The waterfront is just a few degrees above freezing and it’s looking a bit deserted. Treeman rubs his hands together trying to warm his numb, calloused fingers. He says the days of making good money as a busker in Halifax have been few and far between for a while.

Most people don’t hear him playing. They breeze past him in clusters, talking loudly amongst themselves. Or they walk by with headphones on, their eyes fixed to their phone screens.  His quiet harp is no match for technology.

The last stragglers are reluctant to leave the Halifax waterfront, but most of the buskers have packed up for the year.
The last stragglers are reluctant to leave the Halifax waterfront, but most of the buskers have packed up for the year.   Shelby Bona

Treeman’s never played the International Busker Festival held annually on Halifax’s waterfront.

“When it comes to the Busker festival, people are into things that are very vivid visuals that draw the eyes. Or things that are really, really loud,” he says.

Matt Dickson stands about 20 metres away, playing a mandolin and harmonica. He sings a few verses in a raspy, weatherworn voice. He’s been busking around the Maritimes for the last 20 years.

He says Treeman’s not far off about the Busker Festival.

“You’re not gonna make much money anyway, when (other) people are setting things on fire,” he says as he tunes his mandolin. Dickson says he doesn’t stay in Halifax when the festival is going on. He says there isn’t much point in being here.

“They don’t always let us [play]. You need a licence,” he says.

Treeman says he’s not interested in doing this for the money. He has a job, but busking gives him the opportunity to perform the type of music he wants to. During the winter, he’ll have to satisfy himself with his Latin dance troop. He’s meeting up with them in a few hours for rehearsal.

He says he’ll continue to come back to the waterfront with his harp every year, even if he’ll never bring in a big crowd.

“At least I’ve got a good view while I freeze my fingers off,” he says.