Sound and the City

“I used to feel ashamed of being a street musician because ‘street’ means ‘homeless’. But now I kinda like it,” says Nikolai Muzalev, 36, singer and songwriter from Kiev, Ukraine. The last name “Muzalev” sounds a lot like “music I love”, which he totally does.

Muzalev has been performing in St. Petersburg since 2006. All of his peers are business people, but Muzalev, or Kolya as most people call him, is still busking: “Some of my friends feel jealous because they have all the money, but no satisfaction.” For Muzalev, life is a mix of business and pleasure: he makes a living by playing, people passing by enjoy his music, and cashiers in supermarkets welcome him with a bag full of coins. Triple happiness!

After five years of street busking, Muzalev can tell you hundreds of city stories—from a guy proposing to his girlfriend to a businessman sharing a bottle of whiskey with a tramp.

Know a Man by the Music He Plays

Nikolai Muzalev plays mostly old school, Russian rock songs by Kino, DDT, Chaif, Agatha Christie, Alice and Splin. Modern music is “not so catchy” for him or English songs because of their incomprehensible lyrics: “I do love Radiohead, Muse, Nirvana, Doors, Pink Floyd, and Limp Bizkit. But I can’t sing in English without any speaking skills—it would be unfair to the audience,” says Muzalev caringly.

On the other hand, Muzalev sees that the foreign tourists really enjoy Russian music: “Foreigners like the song Gorod Zolotoj (The Golden Town) by Aquarium and Kryl’ya (Wings) by Vyacheslav Butusov. Some tourists with a Russian background know Kino hits, like Gruppa Krovi (Blood Group) and Peremen (Changes). Any soft, melodic sounds are pleasant, no matter what language is spoken”.

Unlike most buskers who flock to St. Pete to sing their heart out to Splin or Viktor Tsoi, Denis Rjabuchin, 21, and Vitaliy Mishin, 21, are more into American and European hits. The two hipster-looking musicians from Khabarovsk have been busking in St. Petersburg since last July to save money for prep courses at Czech Technical University in Prague.

“It’s not so much about cash, but mostly for fun,” says Denis, a guitar player. His friend Vitaliy, a fellow sax-playing busker with a degree in music, agrees: “I want to play music as a hobby, but continue  studying architecture.” Both Vitaliy and Denis do some part-time jobs during the day, like waiting tables or “anything that brings you money very fast”.

If each Pink Panther “pretenders” dropped 100 rubles in the saxophone case, Vitaliy and Denis would have been millionaires long ago. Source: Denis Rjabuchin

The sax and guitar players create improv music without vocals. Their typical set list includes Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson and Stay with Me by Sam Smith. But the most popular track is Henri Mancini’s Pink Panther. “When I wake up in the morning, the theme keeps playing in my head,” says Denis, for whom the dotted rhythm of Mancini reflects the jazzy ambience of St. Petersburg’s low skyline. Foreign tourists seem to like the Western tune, especially Italians: “No matter how old they are, they always catch the tune and start walking like the cartoon character.”

Money Doesn’t Talk

Why can’t extremely talented buskers become professional artists? For Denis and Vitaliy, busking doesn’t depend on planned rehearsals, allowing for a more laid back approach to performing their music. As for Muzalev, the rigid touring schedule of professional musicians is what rubs his free-spirit the wrong way. “Every show is pre-arranged, and you have to spend your life in airplanes,” confesses Muzalev. “Thank God today it’s easier to do what you love than it was in 1990s. Police could lock you up or a mob could bury you alive.”  

“I try to avoid any confrontation with police by riding away with my folding bike,” assures Muzalev. Source: Julia Shimf

Today, street musicians are still regulars at police stations. Officers can book them for having an illegal business, like selling CDs or just plain beggary. Police are regularly patrolling Nevsky Prospekt and Palace Square until 7 pm. After that, street musicians can show up and scope out the best spots.

Vitaliy and Denis are often seen under the arc on the southern side of the Palace Square. The biggest roll they’ve pulled in so far is 4,000 rubles in one hour. But even on their best night, money doesn’t do all the talking for their playlist choice. If you dare to ask Vitaliy to play Murka, you will be disappointed. The sax player will flatly refuse: “People tried to corrupt me with 5,000 rubles, but I didn’t play it, out of principle.” The same goes for Nikolai Muzalev:

I would never perform Gop-stop. People asked me to play it, and some even dangled two 5,000 RUB banknotes in front of my eyes, but I said ‘no’, and thank God; money come and money go.

Keep Your Fingers Moving

The weather in St. Petersburg is by far the toughest obstacle for any street musician. Muzalev is a rare species in busker terms; he plays outdoors year-round: “My personal record temperature is -12 C. There are many different kinds of clothes to keep you warm. And to keep my fingers moving, I borrow winter cream from my kids.”

On St. Petersburg’s Anniversary, New Year’s Eve, and International Women’s Day, the donation box can fill up with $1000 in just one hour.

Vitaliy and Denis are more dependent on weather, because they produce 100% acoustic sound. “When it rains, the sax goes out of tune,” complains Vitaliy. “Playing in sub-zero temperature is no pleasure—the keys get iced and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

“The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard was that I ‘fill up the urban landscape’. That time I felt like a Superman, who’s needed by this city.” - Vitaliy Mishin.
“The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard was that I ‘fill up the urban landscape’. That time I felt like a Superman, who’s needed by this city.” – Vitaliy Mishin.  Source: Denis Rjabuchin

Anecdotes are very common in the busking business, especially in St Pete. Vitaliy recalls a smartly dressed guy, who stripped off his coat, spilled a coffee cap all over the floor and hit the ground. “Unbelievable!” exclaims Vitaliy. “It was 6 pm, people going home from work, and the man rolling on the floor topless. I could hardly play sax because I was laughing out loud, but these stories add spice to my everyday life”.

No matter where you play—in a street or a subway, at weddings or funerals, in clubs or station houses—being a musician is a vocation. For some, it may be a dream job, too. “I had a dream to sing Nevsky Prospekt by Splin under the Nevsky Prospekt walkway. When I first came to St Petersburg and my wish came true, my wife frowned upon me and said: ‘Do you really enjoy it?’ Now she is OK with that because it’s my job. We have two kids, she’s been a housewife for five years; my mother-in-law is on pension. So I’m the only one who supports them—I, the street musician.”

Written By
More from Julia Shimf

Sound and the City

How street musicians make it in St. Petersburg
Read More