Living On The Streets Of London
DAN GROUND THE BUCKET MUSICIAN | Darrin Henry
Sitting on an up-turned bucket with a homeless busker on the streets of central London, UK, attracting curious looks from tourists and shoppers, is an unexpected, new experience for me.
Sharon and I are with 36 year old Dan Ground, originally from Paris, France, but now making a living on the streets of London for nearly 15 years, singing and drumming with plastic buckets.
We first met two days ago when Dan saw me taking pictures on the underground. We got talking; I told him about ‘What The Saints Did Next’ and he told me about his musical buckets. After swapping phone numbers, two days later we met up in Sloane Square underground station on the westbound platform where Dan was going to play.
Unlike our first meeting, this time Dan was loud; singing across the platform while banging his djembe drum. I have to admit this was a bit unsettling as the station platforms were full of people waiting for the train in that typical, silent, ‘don’t make eye contact’ manner that exists on tube. Heads turned to see the commotion we were walking into. Sharon, bless her, shrank away, partly due to embarrassment, partly a little frightened. Dan’s a big guy and a little intimidating initially, but luckily I recognised this as his showman persona.
The station filled and emptied as trains came and went, and all the time Dan knocked out rhythms on the djembe to improvised lyrics loudly directed at the various travellers.
Most people quickly looked away, a little self conscious they’d been targeted by the musician.
Dan gave up working as a real estate agent in France and came to London in 2000, “to learn English.” Arriving at Victoria station, immediately homeless, he wandered around London, “observing people, discovering myself.” Dan slept on the streets, mostly around the Battersea Park area. Inspired by someone else “playing the buckets,” Dan used money he made from selling paintings to buy his own buckets, and began busking. “In the beginning I was rubbish and I think people gave me money so I would stop playing!”
Dan told me he fell in love with London. Over the years he has adapted to living and surviving in the capital, often benefitting from the generosity of friends’ sofas for the night, but admits, “I still don’t have my own house,” and continues at times to sleep outdoors. He did say though, that the idea of owning something, such as a house, doesn’t appeal to him.
“On a good day I can earn £40, £50. On a bad day, perhaps £10.” However, the police have been clamping down on illegal buskers, which makes it difficult. Dan’s application for a licence was rejected last year; reason, there are too many street artists. “I can only play until they spot me.”
Dan’s music style is a mix of reggae and rap, always with his own lyrics. In addition to the underground and the street he also plays at parties, open mic nights and in pubs or clubs. “Anywhere where they’ll have me.”
Our Sloane Square meet up had taken place earlier in the afternoon. Now we were on Regent Street after 7pm outside the handmade cosmetics shop, Lush. In contrast to earlier, Dan arrived subdued, although happy to see us. He gave me a tour of his ‘street corner.’ He normally waits until the shop is closed before settling in to play, but tonight the shop isn’t closing until 8pm, which is how I’ve ended up on the bucket.
I’m surprised to learn Dan is usually anxious every time he is about to play. He thumps a clenched fist against his chest to mimic a nervous heartbeat.
“I sit for maybe an hour before I begin to play,” said Dan. “It allows me to calm down, feel the vibration of the street and then after a while I own this part of the street. It becomes mine.” It’s clear there is a real psychology to this way of life.
Dan has accidentally left his drum sticks behind so offers to play the djembe instead. And, he begins to get loud again. Bit by bit his voice amplifies until he is engaging with anyone who looks our way.
Because the shop is still open we move over to the bus shelter a few metres away and Dan starts playing. Immediately people stop to watch and listen. Dan ad libs the scene into the lyrics:
“This is not my bus, this is not my bus, I don’t want this one… I’m not waiting for the bus.”
“Hey pretty lady, I see you smiling at me, I’m smiling at you, yes you, I see you too…”
“You are my brother, from another mother…”
“Why you laughing? I don’t know. I don’t know… I didn’t recognise you, so sorry ala-morie…”
“My name is Dan Ground, I live underground…”
The energy is palpable; there is an incredible buzz in the air. The night is lit up by the glow of street lamps, headlights and reflections, engine noise, horns being sounded, people chattering as they walk by, footsteps on the pavement, the rumble of suitcase wheels on the go, a police siren… I guess we have added to the spectacle with the camera and the flash going off repeatedly. At one point it seems we are surrounded by people; curious onlookers, but many just waiting for the next bus. I feel as though I’m part of Dan’s team, him with the djembe and me with the camera, and I realise I’ve become intoxicated by the attention – it feels good!
By the time it’s over we are grinning from the adrenaline. “Can you feel that,” asks Dan. “The street has a vibration and you can feel it.”
Analysing the two venues Dan says, “In the underground there’s a different vibe. People feel trapped; they feel frightened because it’s unnatural. That’s what happens to humans when they are underground. But up here on the street it is different. They allow themselves to absorb the vibrations and enjoy it, and they can smile.”
Because of Sloane Square station earlier in the day I understand exactly what Dan means. He is right; earlier there was a tension, but tonight on the open street was exhilarating. I got to experience a special little behind-the-scenes look at an aspect of London that most people only see from the tourism side of the fence. And I got to meet the free spirit that is Dan Ground.