It was 4 p.m. on the corner of Broad and Chestnut streets. The streets were alive with people – constant streams hurrying past in all directions. Above the cars’ honking and crosswalk beeps, a steady pulse could be heard. A few people noticed its source. Others subconsciously walked in time with it, but most ignored it, allowing the music to fade into the soundtrack of the city.
And while for most, the drumming is an extraneous noise, for Levi Hudari Sugu’Ra, it is the focus of his existence.
Sugu’Ra stood outside Center City’s FYE music store surrounded by friends. A young woman with sweeping feather earrings sat behind him, sketching on a large pad. Two younger men in polo shirts stood a little farther away, watching them. On the opposite side, a middle-aged woman in a blue uniform listened intently, a giant smile across her face. Immediately next to Sugu’Ra was a man in a dark-red robe, wearing only one glove and rhythmically singing in time with the pounding beat.
The source of the music was Sugu’Ra.
He happily played the three-piece drum set in front of him, his bearded face smiling up at those around him. People in the area couldn’t help but bounce and sway to the rhythm. A small black bucket sat in front of the drummer, and every few minutes, people would drop in a few coins or crumpled dollar bills before continuing on their paths.
To a casual viewer, Sugu’Ra is just a part of the daily scene downtown. But anyone who talks to him knows he’s a much more integral part of the fabric of Philadelphia.
“It ain’t a subculture. It’s part of the main culture,” Sugu’Ra said. “It’s part of the oldest culture on the earth.”
Sugu’Ra considers himself a griot, a wandering musician responsible for maintaining the oral tradition of his culture. Griots came from West Africa and were the predecessors to the troubadour and the bard. They’re at the root of the street musician movement, and while the obvious emphasis is on the music, Sugu’Ra insists it’s much more than that.
“It’s part of our outreach to humanity,” he said.
Sugu’Ra has been playing music all his life. Though he prefers the drums, he also plays an assortment of keyboards. Sugu’Ra is a historian and music teacher by trade, but can often be found banging out beats across the city, his favorite spot being FYE’s storefront.
“People are open to the music,” he said, as he offered a fist-pump to a man in a muscle shirt, a saxophone hanging from his neck as he took his place next to Sugu’Ra. Sugu’Ra seems to have friends everywhere, evidenced by the posse that formed around him and his casual head nods to passersby every few minutes.
“I love to see the people, and the joy, and the love and the smiles on faces,” he said. “It breaks the monotony of living. Music is the freest thing you can do. I like to see people beautifully enjoy themselves in mass crowds. It’s the energy, the vibrations.”
A few blocks away, on Walnut Street, Jay Mannon and Ross Evans share the same feeling.
“You get to meet a lot of people,” Evans said, shifting the weight of his accordion.
His gauged ears and plastic frames were a stark contrast to the casual blue shirt and khaki pants of Sugu’Ra. But both men share the same profession, providing background music to the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia’s streets.
A black box sat near Evan’s feet, a few coins scattered throughout. A friend slept on the sidewalk behind him, guarding his bike. Evans has only played the accordion for nine months, and Mannon’s instrument is hardly what most would consider legitimate – not many orchestras include the duct tape flute – but they rely on the money thrown into that little box as their primary source of income.
And while serving up lattes or folding overpriced T-shirts is a more traditional and profitable job, street performing does have its perks.
“I love when people sing along, and the trees and the view and the sunshine,” said Jim “Uncle Jimmy” Costello, another performer in the Rittenhouse area who plays all types of music but caters mostly to children.
Standing in the shade of the park, Costello’s bright orange shirt popped against the green backdrop. Guitar in hand and harmonica at the ready, he drew a small crowd with his rendition of The Beatles’ classic “Yellow Submarine.”
Costello said he considers himself a busker – the more formal term for any street performer. His love of music drew him to the profession, and it’s become a full-time gig for him. Costello has been working as a busker for almost 20 years, performing every day. Though he just recently moved to Philadelphia, he knows the ropes well enough to draw a crowd.
“The key is to find the right spot and where everyone is in the right mood,” he said. “Easter Sunday was great. Fridays are payday, and people are feeling generous.”
Within the span of a few Philadelphia blocks, it’s possible to see an entire spectrum of buskers. From those who do it to support themselves, to those motivated by the love of music, to the few who consider themselves a part of something bigger. One common thread is the desire to make a connection with the people around them – to see strangers singing or smiling or bobbing their heads along, even if they just keep walking. The life of a busker is a social one, constantly surrounded by new people from all walks of life.
As the sun shined down on Uncle Jimmy’s salt-and-pepper mane in the middle of the park, a little girl snuck up behind him and dropped a dollar into his jar. He noticed the little one and smiled at her before turning back.
“With busking,” he said, “everything is different.”
And that’s the way they like it.
Caitlin Weigel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.