The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Busker’s Buzz December 20, 2007

Filed under: Tuesdays — ramonalvarado @ 2:23 am
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franquicia tambora 

As I was arriving at the pedestrian area of Velarde St. I saw that the place where the Andean musicians where last time was taken by this gentleman selling a sort of dancing magical skeletons. He sells them by putting on a show with them. These things are made of plastic, about three inches tall and hang by a very thin, invisible almost, fishing wire and he sort of inadvertently makes them dance while speaking to the public.  I kept on walking to my usual spot in the shoe store area. I was so focused on finding out if the PA system of the big shoe store was on that I didn’t noticed that the Andean musicians where already setting up right there. When I saw them I noticed one of the agents of commerce talking to them and telling them that they should get a permit, I think it’s because they have the whole kit, including CD’s and flutes to sell. I talked to them and found out thatthey are actually from Mexico City and not from the Andean region, they usually busk at Malls during this season.

As I was wishing them luck and taking off at that same corner, in the middle of the pedestrian crossing, two little boys, probably 5 or 6 or 5 and6 started to play Tambora with a snare drum and a clarinet, I was really happy about all of this busking scene but a little bit nervous about finding a spot. I went ahead anyway and walked a block further south, did my set and then walked towards the northern end of the Velarde pedestrian shopping area where Ulises joined me briefly once again.

tambora franchise

After that I went towards the Museum where I saw that the little tambora boys had multiplied. They were 7 of them and they had a strategy of divide and conquer. The group I had seen in the Velarde plaza was a subdivision of a busking franchise of brothers and sisters. They where all walking together with their instruments this time back to the main downtown square. As soon as I started my set at the Museum I broke a string, luckily there is a music store right next to me and I was able to change it in less than 5 minutes.

Day 14


Amount of money made: $11.38

Broken string: .90c

Actual gain: $10.48

Exchange rate: 11.16 pesos/dollar


Buskin’ it solo (My cowboy motto) December 16, 2007

Filed under: Fridays,the people — ramonalvarado @ 12:04 am
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new hat

I decided to do the same thing again, a quick stop at that open shopping area next to the market, with the cantinas and the vecindad-looking brothel at La Paz street and then go to the front of the shoe stores around the corner on Velarde Street, a very famous downtown shopping street if you were raised in Juarez, and then end up at the Museum area, right at the corner of Juarez Avenue and 16 of September. As I walked south on Juarez avenue I said good morning to Don Alacran who responded with an unexpectedly enthusiastic “Buena suerte!” (Good Luck) which made me feel really confident.

I thought that the first place was a good busking place because of the attention one gets but I realized that the money isn’t that good. I never count what’s in my hat until I get to the money exchange store but I could easily discern a small amount after I did my set. I do an 8-10 song set depending on the noise and the vibe, and it amounts to almost 40 minutes of music. Doing three different spots puts me at two hours of actual playing which can be kind of exhausting if I don’t take breaks. So I think that that first set I do at La Paz street could be better spent either at a different busking pitch or at any of the two other ones. 

After this I went to the Velarde pedestrian alley and played my set without any particularities. The money and the people there make the other spot look futile. I place my tripod and myself right next to the inner side of a street bench, so there is a space between me and the businesses behind me. The owner of the very small shoe store behind me now says hi in a very respectful and distant way, but always with a smirk of approval which makes me feel welcomed there. This is the only place where I have managed to pick up a crowd, even if small, of on lookers. It still makes me nervous but I try to focus on my guitar. I usually get great comments and a sort of curiosity about my songs. “Who’s song is that?”- “Mine…”-”Wow…really?”

When I finished my set I was walking north towards the Museum when I saw Ulises talking to some young people. He had his guitar with him again. I stopped to say hi to him and he told me that he had been at the Museum looking for me. I told him that I had followed part of his advice and ventured deeper into the downtown area. He asked me if I was going towards the museum and he invited himself too before I could answer. As we walked a few steps he approached a bench where a lady was sitting. She had ear muffs and a scarf and gloves and a thick jacket on her. Ulises just went to her and told her “Let’s go”. She looked confused and he explained to her that I was a friend from El Paso, that I played at the museum and that he was going to join me for a while. He introduced her as his wife, from Veracruz, on the opposite coast of Acapulco, where he is from. That explained the astronaut approach  to the weather, I guess. So we walked and talked a little about the busking business and how he just came from busking at the bus system and made six dollars in just about four trips. When we got the museum he started playing some songs and then I played a couple of mine but I realized that he’s not that great of a partner forbusiness. I cannot accompany him because I don’t have the musical ability and he cannot accompany me because he refuses to tune his guitar with mine. His answer: “if we all tried to tune to somebody else’s instrument nobody would be doing anything”. I ‘m not sure I follow his logic, or if there is logic to follow at all in his statement, but I wasn’t going to argue with him about how I tune to a Wurlitzer organ. The other thing is that he doesn’t seem to finish up the songs, it is like he is just teaching me, so it wasn’t really working right. People passing by thought we were just jammin’ for no apparent reason. In the mean time his wife was walking around, because he told her to “go explore” . When she took off he turned to me and he said that she’s was like an idle cat that needed to wonder off in search of warmth. After a few minutes it got too cold for him because of the shade and he decided to go so he said bye and went away to work somewhere else. I was relived to a certain extent, he’s a great guy but I rather busk alone.


As soon as he was gone I started a set but my fingers were so cold that there were certain songs I couldn’t do, so I just stuck to the fast ones. It was a good day at the end, I even received an envelope with some dollar bills plus a catholic prayer icon of some sort. I guess it was a part of some body’s charity strategy for December.  You might notice the change of hat from the pictures, this is a Russian winter hat that I bought in Moscow, slightly over suited for our winters, but useful nonetheless.  On my way north on Juarez avenue I saw the brother/sister duo of accordion and cup, I said hi and wished them luck. The girl smiled.

Day 11


Amount of money made (border crossing subtracted): $19.76

Time Played: 2h

Using a public bathroom: .30c

Actual gain: $19.46

Exchange rate: 11.05 p/dollar


Triple trip and a kick to top the cake. December 15, 2007

catedralLa morenaza

Because of Tuesday’s result I decided to try a variation. I tried the same spot as Tuesday, in front of the shoe store, and I tried my usual place at the museum but before that I tried another place just a block away from the shoe store. It is the same market area where only pedestrians can walk. To get there I went through the same sea of people that I passed on Tuesday but this day I even got to  see a fight between a drunken  old man and another guy. I guess It wasn’t really a fight but rather a situation where the drunken old man was bothering people to the point where somebody from the crowd had to intervene and throw him to the ground. I have it on video. Why do I have it on video? you might ask. Well because it happened as I had my camera out to picture the huge crowd around the Matachines‘ show in front of the cathedral. Today was the big day for Their Lady of Guadalupe and the crowd was going wild.


The first spot I played at has a couple of cantinas in front and behind it and what I think might be an extremely dilapidated and weird looking brothel too. I know this doesn’t make it sound like a great spot, but one has to consider the crowd, which is the one that makes the vibe of it all. This place is pretty good for busking but it just so happened that as I was setting up my stuff another group of Matachines came to perform a few hundred feet from me, they are really loud with their drums and their thousand nutshells attached to their ankles. The good and the bad thing is that they came and went. I believe it is a ritual amongst merchants in Mexico to bless their markets and so they always dedicate an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe and then have the Matachines perform their ritual dance around the market place to finish up in front of the altar, so this guys were just circling the area back and forth. This gave me a few minutes of silence every now and then. I played my set and got some very good response to it, including a “Qué chingón!!” yell from a transient (which in English means something like “Holy mother of Christ, that rocks!” only with mildly less religiously enthusiastic language).

At the second spot I started my set with a song in spanish and attracted some attention, a few coins and a few stares. By the second song I had a little crowd of  7 or 10 people, one of them dancing. When I finished it up they applauded and then the dancing girl approached me and asked: ” Why are you playing here?” I thought it was a wide open question so I asked her to specify and she said: ” Well, you don’t look poor.” I talked to them for a while and explained that among other things I was also trying to break that precise preconception and that I would be really happy to see more and more actual street performers who were not afraid of that socio-economic stigma. They agreed and said it was a very cool thing, but when I told them that I had to get back to work and continue to play, they thought I was ditching them. I guess it’ll take more time for them to understand that there is indeed some kind of seriousness to the performing side.

I decided to finish the day at the front of the Museum, it’s just a very nice spot and it seems to call me. When I got there I noticed that at the eastern corner of the building a young guy and his sister (I think) were performing. He plays the accordion and she holds a cup. They both look as if they don’t really want to be there and he plays sitting on the sidewalk. I had seen them on Tuesday and gave them a few coins. I thought about them and about approaching them but they look really shy. So what I did was to go all the way to the other corner of the building instead of staying at the entrance so that I wouldn’t bother them or take any possible tip away from them. This was inevitable though, and I felt kind of bad. I thought about approaching them and telling them some tips, because the guy can obviously play the accordion pretty well, but I don’t want to sound condescending or snobbish as if I knew everything by telling them what has worked for me. The girl keeps covering her mouth with the arms of her sweatshirt (as a nervous tic I think) as she puts the Burger King cup on your face when you walk pass them. It seems to me like they are doing everything wrong in terms of making their busking efficient and pleasant, but how do I tell them?

BK brothers

So anyway I went to the complete opposite side of the building, played, got some good money and as I was getting ready to wrap up my last song this weird looking lady came and stopped by my side. She suddenly started to mimic my movements and although it was funny I realized that she wasn’t right in the head. So I wrapped it up and began to pick my stuff up. She looked at me and told me: “Suelte un aguilar ¿o qué?” This is roughly translated to ” Let go of an Aguilar, or what?” At this point I kind of knew what she was aiming for because she kept eyeing my purse and my hat, but I also didn’t understand what she was saying. So I asked: ” Do you mean a song by Antonio Aguilar (A big Norteño musician)? I don’t really do that kind of music, I’m bad with covers” I said. I kept on putting my stuff away, I grabbed my purse (some people would call it a male hand bag but screw that, its a purse) and the money and she approached my guitar and with her extremely long and scary nails she went through each one of the strings. I told her that she should be careful because they could snap and hurt her. She didn’t hear me, she continued and said that she had been in a fight earlier during the day and showed me her nails by putting them very near my face. At this point I kind of understood what she was trying to do so I played stupid. She asked for that Aguilar again and I told her about the famous singer again to which she replied: “No te hagas pendejo (Don’t play stupid), que sueltes una lana (give me some money). At this point I had everything with me and my guitar was behind me so I told her that I wouldn’t, that I had just worked for it and that wasn’t the way to ask anyway. So she slowly walked towards my right side, took a long look at me from top to bottom and then kicked me on the side of the leg. She couldn’t really stand up properly, drunkness I guess, so I barely felt the kick. She quickly took off to bother some other guy selling I don’t know what and I just kept walking towards the bridge. I later thought about that Aguilar thing and recalled that peso coins all have an eagle stamp in the back. The word for eagle in Spanish is águila, so “Aguilar” being a famous last name and having to do with águila, is a slang for money. Now I know and you do too in case you get to see her once upon a border town.

Day 10


Amount of money made: 14.58

Time Played: 1h 55m

Exchange rate: $11.08p/dollar