On Monday, Dec. 9, the Indianapolis Marion County City-County Council will vote on an anti-panhandling proposal that could effectively criminalize all variety of artistic street performance in the Downtown area and place severe limitations on artistic performance throughout the city. Like many other Indy-based artists, I find the harsh restrictions embedded in this proposal unacceptable and misguided. As I reviewed a copy of Proposal 143 on the indy.gov website recently, I was reminded of the importance street performance has had in my life.
I will never forget the first time I heard the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. It was 2005, and I was in Chicago on a record-buying mission and I decided to check out the Virgin Record's Megastore located on Michigan Avenue. As I approached the Magnificent Mile, I was transfixed by a faint strain of majestic brass music pushing through Chicago's bitterly cold December winds. Even from a distance it was one of the most glorious sounds I'd ever heard.
I wound my way through the maze of frigid city blocks eventually finding the source, a group of eight young men dressed in camo fatigues. They performed in perfect unison on a bustling street corner, immune to the din of honking cars, and noisy pedestrian traffic. Their music embodied an improbable mix of sounds, capturing the texture of jazz, the tough, rhythmic drone of hip-hop and the beautiful choral harmonies of Medieval madrigals and motets. I stood in amazement listening to the group for over an hour, shivering in the subfreezing temperatures alongside them. I would've stayed longer, but they called it quits for the day at sundown. I dumped whatever cash I had from my pocket into their tip jar and walked away astonished by their innovative sound.
Over the next year, I never missed an opportunity to visit Chicago in hopes of witnessing another street-side performance by the group. I caught them a couple more times in the Windy City before they relocated for extended residencies on the sidewalks of New York, Berlin and London. Despite achieving a respectable measure of success, Hypnotic stayed true to their street performance roots - even after being featured in a major New York Times piece, and collaborating with music royalty like Prince, Erykah Badu, Blur's Damon Albarn, The Wu-Tang Clan, Femi Kuti and Mos Def.
My fascination with Hypnotic wasn't the first or only time I've found myself seduced into traveling by the call of street musicians. For me, a big factor in visiting New York is always the thrill of discovering exciting new music as I navigate the sidewalks and subway corridors of the city. On my first trip, I was determined to catch a performance of traditional Chinese classical music. With Manhattan's Chinatown hosting the largest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere, I figured there must be a thriving Chinese music scene. I was wrong (or so I thought) as I scoured the city's guide books and event calendar listings for concert information and found nothing. But my disappointment was short-lived, as I discovered what I was searching for on the street, a soloist on the violin-like erhu crouched in front of a D line train stop and a four-piece ensemble performing an impromptu concert on a Chinatown side street.
Mayor Ballard claims the anti-panhandling Prop.143 was crafted to protect the interests of Downtown's business owners, but street performance can be a significant attraction for visiting shoppers, diners and tourists.
Cities like New York understand the value street performers can add to a thriving municipality. In 1985 the Metropolitan Transit Authority created Musicians Under New York, a program designed to advertise and promote the wide variety of performing artists working in the city's subway terminals. If only Indianapolis had this creative, visionary approach to problem solving - perhaps we wouldn't be pleading to allow street performers to maintain their right to work, we'd be finding new ways to allow them to flourish.
There's still time to have your voice heard on this issue, write your local local council-person and ask them to vote "no" on Prop. 143.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week features music from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
1. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Jupiter
2. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Flipside
3. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Marcus Garvey
4. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Sanfoka
5. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - War
6. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Starfighter
7. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Kryptonite
8. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Spottie
9. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Tema do Canibal
10. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Pluto
11. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Fly
12. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Ancestral
13. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Ballicki Bone