The New Orleans streets act as a debt-free academic institution for aspiring musicians. Street performers add a notable spirit to the city, and the wandering people who discover them serve as a source of inspiration for these musicians to keep on playing.
“New Orleans has really been my music college out here on the street because there’s such good encouragement and support and inspiration to keep playing when you always have a crowd, well not always, but someone’s standing around” explains Jonah Tobias from Buku Broux, a New Orleans world-fusion band.
After a performance in Jackson Square, a large crowd of Buku Broux spectators flocked to purchase the band’s CDs and talk to its members. Buku Broux has been performing on the New Orleans streets for over five years. During that time, they’ve created three distinctly different CDs, helping them to pursue music as a full-time career, gain popularity, and bring their name outside of New Orleans. Jonah told a story of an old roommate who was in Memphis and got into an Uber with a driver who had one of Buku Broux’s CDs. Jonah explained this as one of the benefits of being a street musician: “You really get your music out to a wide audience in a really personal kind of way out here.” In some aspects, he sees street performance as more beneficial than being a signed artist, saying that “some street musicians sell a lot more CDs than signed bands do. Every day we come out here, and we’re selling a bunch. So many people have our CDs.”
Buku Broux has an incredibly unique sound, and their performance in Jackson Square incorporated drums, a keyboard, and an instrument from West Africa called the Kora. With music as the members’ sole careers and source of income, some credit has to be given to New Orleans in particular for providing them with an environment where this life path is possible.
“One of the things about New Orleans is people come here for music because you can drink on the street, and because we have these public spaces,” Jonah explained. “People want to be entertained on the street, and that’s what you want to play for. I’ve played in Los Angeles. I’ve played for people who were getting coffee on the morning commute, and it’s alright, it might be some good money, but the feeling here is so much better. And they let us play loud, which changes everything too.”
New Orleans city officials embrace street performance because it promotes the city’s culture and heritage. The use of amplifiers is allowed, and musicians don’t need a permit to perform on the street or in public spaces. There are no strict restrictions on street performers’ volume either. Buku Broux has never had a complaint about their music’s volume, nor have they heard of any other musicians encountering this issue. The loudness of performers’ music perhaps helps draw a crowd.
Loud music is an essential part of New Orleans’ culture, and public spaces as platforms for performance have a long history. Beginning in the early 1900s, traditional jazz and brass bands played at almost every major event held in the city such as funerals and parades. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs would often hire brass bands to play a second line in the streets and parade around communities, blasting music as a means to bring upbeat cheer. This deeply rooted tradition is why performers can do what they do today.
Fernando Lima, one of Buku Broux’s drummers, said, “When you go to play a different city, you look for a crowd. But in New Orleans, the crowd looks for you. People that come here are looking for this. Street music in New Orleans is so famous. They come to you looking for music.”
The one-of-a-kind spirit of New Orleans musical culture which attracts outsiders and allows for the success of street performers can be derived from its past. Adrian Jusdanis, a member of a hip-hop/trap jam band called New Thousand, firmly believes that New Orleans history is a crucial aspect of his band’s success: “There’s a long history of street performance in New Orleans, and that goes back to decades ago. A bunch of black New Orleans musicians fighting for street music to happen. Because of the work that those black musicians did, we were able to get a piece of the pie,” Adrian appreciatively explained.
During the nineteenth century, enslaved and free people of color were restricted to a single gathering place: Congo Square. On Sundays, people of African descent congregated in this public space, practicing African-influenced song and dance. The music performed in Congo Square eventually lead to the birth of jazz.
Adrian went on to talk about what he believes is one of the most unique aspects of New Orleans. “This is, like, one of the few cities in America where black culture hasn’t been totally squashed and stomped out. So there’s a huge history of white musicians too, but particularly black musicians, who were able to put the city on the map for music and turn street performance into a legitimate hustle.”
Adrian himself began as a solo street musician in New Orleans, and after realizing the benefits that street performance in the city could bring, Adrian called three friends about the musical success he had discovered. They immediately quit their jobs and moved to New Orleans to begin New Thousand, incorporating their skills of violin, keys, hand drum and electronic percussion. Although a risky move, these men had strong confidence in the opportunities that the Crescent City streets could bring them, and they now live exclusively off of street performing.
New Thousand recently played at BUKU Music and Arts Festival in New Orleans. Adrian described that this experience “felt very nice, legitimizing, and on the way to doing rock star shit.” But, he says he prefers street performance over festival gigs because “we can go to the street and make more money and draw in a more diverse demographic and have more fun doing it, and there’s no stress.”
Adrian also believes that street musicians thrive more in New Orleans because everyone wants to come since the city is so fun. “You come to New Orleans, and you realize everything that life can be, and a part of that is street performance,” he said. “We have fans all over the country having almost never left New Orleans because people all over the country come to New Orleans.”
He went on to talk about what influences New Thousand’s music. “There’s a real spirit that the musicians of New Orleans, especially the black musicians, have and we’re inspired by that. Just by being on the street ourselves, some of that energy comes out through us. You might not hear the same thing that you hear from brass bands, but the feeling of watching us might not be so different from the feeling of watching them.”
COVER PHOTO: Bronwyn Olstein