Ever wonder about the musicians who line the walls of the Central Station tunnel during peak hour? Who are they? Why do they play? Emily Meller decided to find out.
A man sat on a scuffed milk crate on the side of the Central Station tunnel. He placed a black case on the ground, opened it and produced a weird string instrument. Quietly, almost hesitantly, he began to play.
For everyone else, the tunnel is just an unpleasant part of their daily commute. Grimy, fluorescent and lined with odd murals, the tunnel is not a place anyone hangs around for long. Hundreds of pairs of feet stomp along, the sound mingling with echoing voices and the metallic screech of trains. In the middle of it sat this man. I wanted to know more about him, and how he could spend so much time in this place. As clichéd as it sounds, the SBS slogan “everyone has a story” is completely true.
I approached him. He smiled and nodded. I didn’t quite know how to go up to a stranger and question them without having pre-arranged an interview, without background research. So I dropped 20c into the open case and waited for a break in the songs.
“Hi, I wanted to ask you—”
“I speak no English,” he explained. “I am Chinese.”
He resumed playing his music and didn’t look my way again. He seemed impossibly calm. How could I make him talk? His silence had convinced me that he must have an extraordinary story of heartbreak and tragedy. Was it like all the documentaries on the ABC? Had he had endured a long and arduous journey only to reach our shores and end up here, busking? Had he been addicted to drugs and then saved by his passion for the erhu? Was he on the run for uncovering a conspiracy and forced to earn money in cash to avoid detection by authorities?
“Are you sure you don’t speak English?”
He just smiled and nodded.
Perhaps he was just a guy who wanted a place to practise and his wife had told him to do it outside. Maybe he just played because it was something he liked to do.
A little further down I spotted a couple immersed in upbeat but unidentifiable songs on a keyboard and acoustic guitar. The man barely looked up from his rather battered instrument. Meanwhile, the woman jabbed at the keyboard with a huge smile on her open face. Meet John and Yuki, a married couple who told me they play here four or five days every week of the year.
When I asked them if they could talk for a few minutes, I was genuinely taken aback at how friendly they were. It is not often you find people in the city who will put down whatever they are doing just to chat. I have been known to rush past people I do know and send them a “Sorry – late” text a minute later.
Here were two total strangers who just stopped playing mid-song. John actually asked me the first question, “What is it you do, Emily?”
I had to turn it around pretty quickly; I was the one with an article to write after all. It turned out John and Yuki also play gigs at various Sydney venues as their main source of income. John improvised jazz, which explained his rambling playing style and the lack of a discernible melody. Yuki told me proudly that she is self-taught on the keyboard, despite not being able to read sheet music.
“I love it!” she explained.
I realised that I have never learnt a proper skill purely out of love. It always seems to be for money or academic merit or necessity. But love? That’s brave. Bravery is certainly not something I had associated with busking before, but under the fluorescent tunnel light it struck me as fitting.
When I asked Yuki and John, rather pointedly, why they busked at all, it took a few seconds for them to respond. I expected answers like “extra money” or “to promote our music to passersby”.
“It gives us something to do,” replied John. “To keep our skills fresh.”
“Not for the money?” I asked.
John laughed. “It’s pretty good, usually, but not enough to keep us going. We don’t busk just for money – it wouldn’t be enough.”
I asked if they ever felt underappreciated here, playing music for such an unresponsive crowd. Surprisingly, they told me that quite a few people tend to stop and thank them, or have a quick chat on their way through. Not everyone, obviously, but at least someone most days. As John pointed out, it isn’t the best spot to have long conversations.
Down the end closest to UTS, I met Owen, who was cheerfully performing on a white accordion. He gave me his business card, revealing he was a part time music teacher and performer.
“This is a fisharmonica, not an accordion,” he informed me. “Fisharmonica is actually the proper name. They were invented before pianos – did you know that?”
Owen had a mop of hair and an overenergised manner, as though he was fuelled by excessive caffeine and unable to focus on any one thing at a time. He was also brimming with musical facts, which he shared with me almost compulsively.
“It is hard to tune a piano, you know, but this never goes out of tune. Actually, I think an Australian guy invented the keyboard piano, and that never goes out of tune either. Can you imagine? A guy in Queensland I think, and he invented it.”
So far I had only asked why he played an accordion. It turned out that Owen could also play the trombone, trumpet, guitar, piano and keyboard. I asked what kind of music he played on the accordion.
“Rhythm and blues: R&B. But I don’t think that is what they call R&B anymore, is it? R&B is more rapping and things and I play a fisharmonica instead, like the old jazz clubs in New Orleans. That kind of thing, you know?”
I did not know. I imagined a smooth almost country-style sound, which is kind of what Owen played. Unfortunately, to my untrained ears, almost all songs on a fisharmonica just sound like someone playing an accordion. But it certainly made for appropriate walking music and could at least be heard above the din of the Tunnel.
It was hard to get Owen to talk much about his life. He much preferred talking about guitar, keyboards and music than about his past as a maintenance worker. He was content, immersed in the world of music any way he could be, and for the moment that meant coming to the tunnel to play. Assuming that most people ignored buskers, I asked if he ever feels isolated by this work.
“Oh, no, people are very nice. They like to come and have a chat, five or six a day have a chat.”
The idea of the faceless crowd who ignore their surroundings seemed to be a myth. John, Yuki and Owen often talk to people in the tunnel, and are more than happy to do so. Perhaps being a busker requires one to actually enjoy talking to strangers and to be open to any opportunity to connect with a fellow human being.
I expected to end this article with a philosophical sentiment about learning how to listen. Instead, it seems more useful to learn how to just start talking. They may not have revealed scandalous secrets or tragic tales, but the buskers of Central Station still offer important insights into what it means to live in Sydney, and how to fight off the feeling of isolation that so often plagues cityscapes.