There's something about the inner-city: a certain electricity and vibe that cannot be found elsewhere. For all of us who live in New Zealand, the best display of city atmosphere is undeniably found in the centre of Auckland - Queen Street to be more exact.
This particular autumn morning found me walking down Queen Street; drinking in the heady brew of sights, smells and sounds. For me the latter was always the most important - I have always been attracted to the distinct and intense sound of the city. Like a living organism, the inner-city has a heartbeat that is beautiful, sonorous and strangely hypnotic. Be it the half-articulated sound of conversation, raucous laughter, the blaring horn of a driver on his daily commute, or the sound of the busker. It was the sound of busking that averted my eyes across the street, to the doorway of some 'for lease' property that, like its current occupants, seemed out of place on Queen Street. A young boy and an old man, polar opposites, were the creators of the sound that had led me to jaywalk to the other side of the road. The man was as old as the boy was not. He looked as if he had seen better days, and resembled your stock homeless man: unkempt beard and hair, ripped wardrobe and a weather beaten complexion. He played an old bongo drum, and his young companion strummed a faux-Fender guitar. The unlikely duo were producing a synergy of sound that was harmonious and resonant. I dropped a handful of coins into the battered guitar case with a sign taped on the front reading "thank you" then took my position on the adjacent wall and let the sound wash over me.
A straightforward yet well rehearsed riff was complemented by the tribal beats that only a bongo can produce - it was an excellent combination. After an extended bongo solo the music faded and I approached the two, introduced myself, and asked a few questions regarding the origin of this unusual musical project.
The boy, Ezra McDonald (13), with a fresh faced sense of vigor, proceeded to tell me all about how he had been playing guitar for about three years and wanted “to be a rock star.” The old man, Paul McDonald (58) and Ezra's grandfather, laid a proud hand on the boys shoulder and gave me a kind wink, “he's a good boy.”
The two began playing together earlier this year and have only just started performing publically. Mr. McDonald's face was etched with lines of hardship and sadness, and he spoke with a heavy and wise tone about unemployment, the difficulties of making it in the music industry and his love of Auckland city.
"It's tough being a percussionist you know," Paul told me. "You're seen as an add-on and not even a real member of the band." Though bitter about his musical career, Paul has definitely had some good times. "I played at WOMAD with Billy TK... That was a kick." Though performing at other respected venues across New Zealand, Paul always came back to busking, "there's something magical about playing on the streets.. With your audience all around you. And the extra money is a help.” Paul is unemployed and aside from the benefit, the money made from street performing is his only source of income. "It also keeps me fit and my fingers calloused" Paul adds with a laugh. Not wanting to be left out, Ezra pipes in, "it's great practice and heaps of fun."
I glance at my watch and realize I've been chatting to the two for over half an hour, and that my bus was scheduled to leave in less than ten minutes. Before I departed, I ask what the two call themselves; if they had a performance moniker. They laugh and apparently haven't thought about this before. "How about Rhythm Devils" Paul offers. "Yeah sounds good" says Ezra, "Rhythm Devils, I like it." I close my notebook, pocket my pen, and shake both of the performers’ hands. I hurry off to catch my bus, and am consumed by the hordes of other city-goers. Though I will probably never have the pleasure of hearing Rhythm Devils play again, just for a moment all three of us had shared something special. I was lost and enveloped in the musical landscape that the two had created. It confirmed my belief that music is so much more than just a frequency; more than a sound or a song. It is something that truly defies definition, and speaks so much more than words. As I continued up Queen Street, the two began to play again, their sound becoming more faint with every step of my ascent until their music became undistinguishable from the conversation, the laughter and the car horns - simply another component of the inner-city heartbeat.
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