City officials wish that musicians who are 'more like beggars' would go home.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová
Since the establisment of independent Slovakia in 1993, Bratislava has grown in size and colour - and so too has its population of street musicians, a phenomenon most city officials and citizens view with delight. "Over the past eight years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of street musicians," said Milan Vajda, spokesman for the Old Town district of Bratislava. "Aside from a few problems with those who are more like beggars, it's wonderful for the city."
According to various officials, Bratislava street musicians can be divided into three categories: music students and young professionals trying to earn an extra crown, itinerant mendicants who use their instruments as begging props, and a quirky assortment of amateurs who have never learned to read music, never crossed over into playing professionally, but who are quite passionate about their talent.
Pavol Suchánek, a 59 year-old Slovak accordionist, falls into the latter category. He smokes too much, has a prominent St. Nicholas paunch, and can sound off about politics without coming up for air in much the same way he moves without delay from one central European folk song to the next. His jaw moves incessantly, tightening occasionally into a charming pucker.
"I used to be a truck driver during communism, then I had to retire after I got injured," he says, digressing almost immediately from a question about music. "Nowadays a person over 35 can't find a job. You call this democracy?"
After losing his job in 1992, Suchánek began to play on the streets to supplement his disability insurance. While never performing professionally, he said that he'd played accordion (as well as the mandolin, guitar, and banjo) his entire life, often attending festivals and amateur competitions.
"I work an average of five or six hours a day, and make only about 2,000 Slovak crowns ($44) a month," Suchánek said after initially declining to be interviewed because, he explained, during the half-hour lull he could make up to 200 crowns. "Look how much money Austrians make, and how much better they can live here. [Stupid] government!" Bilious words, but minutes later Suchnánek was again at peace, caught in a breezy melody that seemed to come as much out of his jiggling figure as his accordion.
As he played, a small 11 year-old Romany boy crept up sheepishly to watch. With an accordion of his own strapped like an oversized mattress across his bony shoulders, the child gazed with a mixture of curiosity and admiration. Suchánek seemed to enjoy the moment, dipping his shoulders enthusiastically as if to say, 'this is how you do it'.
For this gypsy child (Adrian Bala from Poland), most interactions with other musicians, and adults in general, are far more confrontational. The previous day, for example, while following a group of tourists down Panská ulica in the Old Town, Adrian crossed into a stream of music coming from a well-trained classical guitarist. When the group of tourists outpaced Adrian, the guitarist addressed him with harsh words and angrily threw out his hands; Adrian meandered slowly away.
Bratislava officials are perturbed by the increasing number of foreign 'urchins' like Adrian, mostly from Romania and the Ukraine, who now reside in the Slovak capital. With instruments in hand, they wander unsupervised through the city accosting strangers in a kind of sad counterpoint to the harmonies of the other musicians.
Alena Nitschneiderovová from the Bratislava Office of Registration admits that children like Adrian are a problem, but says that little can be done about them. "We're trying to find a solution, but it's difficult. Most of these people come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, so they can't be fined, and according to the law cannot be locked up for begging either."
But charged with the task of regulating Bratislava's burgeoning street musician community, Nitschneiderovová prefered to emphasise the positives. "I'd say the great majority of them are legitimate musicians, and in general cause very few problems. When there are problems, I usually just go on the street to speak with them. I know almost all of them."
Bratislava street performers, she explained, are required to buy a permit, a process designed more to regulate where and when the musicians perform rather than to tax earnings. Permits cost 100 crowns a month (200 for bands of any size) and are purchased for specific locations and times. Although the police often ignore or simply escort those without permits away, Nitschneiderovová said that over 90% of the city's musicians were licensed.
Dano Y and Lucia X, permit-carrying virtuosos of ages 17 and 18 respectively, are students of the violin at the state conservatory in Bratislava. They are exactly the type of musicians officials and citizens of Bratislava love to see on the street. "We started playing to earn a little money and because we like doing it anyway," Dano said. "In the summer we are out almost everyday. We earn about 150 crowns per hour."
While the couple played a Mazas duet on a recent afternoon, appreciative Táňa Rahniaková, a 28 year-old native of Bratislava, marvelled at how the situation in the city had changed. "I think it's beautiful how much music there is these days in the streets of Bratislava. When they are not being aggressive and shoving their cups in your face, the presence of street musicians is such a joyous thing."