Turbo Street Funk takes Toronto busking to a new level
Common rhetoric would have one believe that the French horn is not an appropriate sidewalk instrument. An electric bass, sure, or even the occasional mini drum set (likely covered with social conscience stickers), but a French horn? Save it for Roy Thomson Hall, Kristoph. Still, a group of York University music students are proving there's a place for the brass instrument at King and John, Queen and Spadina, and other downtown spots, while still managing to garner pretty impressive crowds standing by.
I first encountered Turbo Street Funk sometime in August outside the Bay at Yonge and Bloor. I believe they were midway through their rendition of James Brown's "I Feel Good," and I, like probably 25 or 30 others, couldn't help but stop and watch. There was Daniel Walsh on trombone, Juan Manuel Arce on sax, Casey Van Gorkom on guitar, Trix Sharma on tuba, Camilo Giraldo on drums, and Eric Szabo on the aforementioned French horn. And they all looked like they were having a great time. Fedoras abound, Blues Brothers sunglasses, not-so-subtle dance moves, and a "Turbo Street Funk" sign that was surely crafted with Magic Markers in someone's basement. In short, they were charming, but more than that--they sounded incredible.
A few weeks later I caught the guys again wooing the Queen and Spadina crowds with The Shuffle Demons' "Spadina Bus," and after that, at Dundas Square, doing all sorts of jazzy things with the Ghostbusters theme song. The number of onlookers at each spot seemed to grow exponentially, and I even caught a few spectators shamelessly busting a move.
So I contacted the band to find out more, and I met Daniel and Casey at Aroma to chat about how they ended up with their instruments on the streets.
"We were all gearing up to work shitty summer jobs," Daniel says. "Many of us couldn't find work, others were stuck at desk jobs."
"So, as a bit of a break, I arranged that we would meet Friday night at King and John and just play," he continues.
That first, informal night, about seven or eight York music students showed up and they ended up making about $13 bucks each.
"We thought, 'Not bad. Enough for bus fare and a couple of beers,'" Casey says.
The group started meeting regularly and was eventually narrowed down to the six who now call themselves Turbo Street Funk. Many band members quit their summer jobs and committed to playing downtown seven days a week; a plan which, it turns out, didn't really last.
"The thing about playing a brass instrument is that it can be really exhausting," Daniel says. "The breathing, the muscles in your face--and when you're out there playing for eight or 10 hours at a time, you get tired really quickly."
Now back in school, the guys head downtown most weekends and are planning to put together a CD.
"We don't really play bars or clubs," Casey says. "People don't dance in bars."
"And we could probably make more money playing outside your bar anyway," Daniel adds, alluding to system of "exposure currency" in which many Toronto bars deal.
I ask the guys why they think they've been able to accrue a following unlike many of their busker predecessors. I have my own thoughts; they're funky (hence the name), they're charismatic, they're a young, and they're playing atypical sidewalk instruments such as horns and tubas. But Casey gives an answer I think trumps all others.
"Music is 'supposed' to be played in certain places," he says. "A bar, a club, and event venue."
"The assumption," he continues, "is that if you're playing on the street, you're not any good. We want to play good, quality music, and I think we're doing pretty well." Play on, boys. You've almost got me dancing.
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