Local busk-funk heroes talk about how they started, how they pick their songs, and what happens next.
When trombonist Daniel Walsh started Turbo Street Funk with a group of friends from York University’s music program in the spring of 2011, he wasn’t trying to make money. He just wanted to keep his skills sharp during the summer.
“Music students are just notorious that, once summer hits, you just stop playing,” he says. “So we figured that every Friday night we’d go downtown and play on the streets, have a fun time, and maybe have enough to have a beer at the end of it.”
It turns out that the band wasn’t just a beer money generator. In a soft summer job market, it was a lifesaver.
“The job market was just really terrible, especially for unskilled labour,” he says. “One night, almost no one came out, and I almost cancelled the night, but then everyone made, not a ton of money, but fifty or sixty bucks each, and we were only out there for a couple of hours. Just imagine what we could make if we were out there all day. So it was really an economic decision.”
Over the last two summers, Turbo Street Funk have become a fixture on Toronto’s sidewalks. They gather crowds wherever they go. It’s hard to miss a group of six young men—including a tuba player—in their early 20s, belting out largely instrumental funk versions of everything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the theme from Ghostbusters.
Walsh does most of the arranging for the group. He admits that it’s difficult to find songs that are immediately recognizable to passersby, even when re-imagined as an six-piece funk song. “You’re looking for something that’s recognizable even without the lyrics,” he says. “Something that has a really distinctive melody. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is perfect, for example.”
Playing on the street isn’t without its hazards. Walsh says that shop owners often aren’t crazy about having the band play in front of their stores, and Toronto’s bylaws mean they’re easy to move.
“The bylaws are really vague and open to interpretations,” he says. “For example, you’re technically not supposed to have any sort of amplification on the street, but if you didn’t do that, you’d never be able to be heard above the traffic… We don’t have a problem with the bylaw officers themselves. They’re generally all really nice and just doing their jobs.”
Even with those hassles, Walsh loves busking. For him and his bandmates, it’s not just a way to pay tuition, it’s also a sort of public service.
“I feel like people in Toronto are always in a hurry,” he says. “They’re always with their heads down, rushing to work or wherever they’re going. I’m happy that we get people to have some fun on their lunch break, stop and smell the flowers a little.”
Turbo Street Funk is starting to look beyond the street. They’ve started writing original music, as well as playing shows indoors. Last fall, they released a CD. Earlier this summer, they took their act down the QEW to play the Hamilton Art Crawl, where they received a warm reception. They’re hoping their street audience will follow them inside.
“We opened for The Shuffle Demons at their release party,” he says. “They started out playing on the street back in the ’80s… People were there who first saw them busking in 1984. We’d love to have that happen for us.”