A performance in the Solos festival. A play called “Things Drugs Taught Me.” Co-producer of Confabulation. A book launch. It’s hard to keep up with little dynamo Nisha Coleman. I had the great good fortune to talk to her about her brand spanking new book, Busker: Stories from the Streets of Paris.
“It’s about the first year and a half that of my life as a busker in Paris and it includes the backstory of how I got there,” Coleman explains. “I didn’t speak French and didn’t have a place to stay in the city and I was trying to find a place to belong. I didn’t have job prospects. I didn’t know anybody.”
Rewind! How does someone end up busking in Paris? Originally Coleman came from “a swamp” better known as cottage country Ontario (Muskoka). She fell in love with the idea of spending time in Paris after a whirlwind backpacking tour.
“I met a Parisian, one of those creatures, and he invited me to Paris. It was an idea of ‘Romance.’ He invited me out for coffee, saying ‘It will be ten thousand times better than your best dreams.’ I had created this idea of who he was and what my life was going to be like, who I would be once I spoke French. As soon as I graduated university, I took off. As soon as I landed in Paris, that whole thing basically disintegrated immediately.”
While most people would throw in their francs (or euros) after a let down like that, Coleman is not most people. Instead, she began to busk, and as she puts it, “it opened every single door.” She found her house, she learned French, she made friends and found a new love — at least for awhile. “Through busking, that’s how I made everything happen. I was talking to people all the time.”
“The point that I want to make to people is that what can sometimes seem like a mistake, you can change a mistake into something totally amazing. It seemed like ‘Fuck, this is a disaster.’ I had a choice to make it into something that was not a disaster,” she says.
Being a busker has me wildly curious about her experiences. Clearly, I’m the ideal audience for this book. Coleman generously explains how her training in violin through the Suzuki method made it easy because she had many pieces memorized. Between her Suzuki repertoire and Bach, she occupied archways and public spaces to play. “Bach is my favorite composer and he wrote a lot of solo material for violin and cello. I would play cello suites transposed for violin, and a lot of violin solo work. Under the archways, there’s this nice echo and Bach resonates beautifully,” Coleman says. “It’s funny to see people responding to classical music who normally wouldn’t listen. They don’t have classical records home, but there’s something about solo Bach that touches people, even if they don’t know what they’re listening to.”
I ask where she liked to play best. She mentions Place des Vosges and the archways and Le Palais Royal. Other places like the metro and the Louvre were more problematic. “The metro is very extensive and has a lot of musicians and that’s what they do and they have their places where they play. The best spots are taken for years. There are unspoken rules where you could play or not play,” she says. “Even on the coldest days, I played outside.” Also, she mentions that people in the metro are “kind of robotic. Earbuds in, not really in a space to appreciate music and take the time to listen.”
She had a few run-ins with the police and security guards. “I tried in front of Notre Dame,” she says. “That’s just that, you can’t. The police presence is pretty strong there.” At the Louvre, security guards chased her away.
Even though she made more money busking for several hours a day than a friend who taught English full time, she had plenty of hard days. “Sometimes I’d play for an hour and someone would call the police. There’s always one who hates the violin out of the 100 people you please. I’d get kicked out by police or people in their homes, and they’d be like ‘Madmoiselle, get out of here.’ That was always hard for me. Those were hard days. It’s not that big a deal in hindsight, but at those moments, I felt vulnerable as a busker. There’s no job security, no busker hotline you can call. You’re on your own. If police are like you’re out of here, it’s brutal. I’d lose my confidence and wouldn’t play for the rest of the day.”
There were some good days too and Coleman developed a sense of reading her audience. “I could tell when you made a good connection,” she says. One of her best moments happened at the Louvre in between hiding from the security guards. “One time, this group of Japanese business men, one guy was listening and he dropped something in my case. It made no sound, so I knew it was a bill. People were staring wide eyed into my case,” she says. “He gave me a $100 euro bill. I didn’t even know what colour they were, I’d never seen one. That was a special day. There were random moments like that.”
Despite the hardships, Coleman walked away with a sense of others’ goodness. “I learned that people are incredibly generous and kind. Most people are. The assholes are few and far between. When an asshole calls the police, it ruins your day. But people are genuinely good. That’s the main thing I learned. There’s goodness in most people.”
Of course, turning this into a book is another thing altogether. “I always wrote. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer,” she says. While in Paris, she wrote about the things that happened to her, never intending the material to feed into a book. “Just random thoughts and experiences,” she says. “I was collecting all these anecdotes and parts of people for something. I knew I would write about this, but it didn’t occur to me to write a book until much later. I was in the moment living it, not thinking ‘This will be a chapter in my book.'”
She first tried writing a busker’s manual, and through each draft, her writing got more personal and she took more risks in sharing herself. Another thing that developed was finding an arc to the story. “I guess a busker’s life is so chaotic and messy. There’s no running theme,” she says. “It was a good exercise to find meaning in all these random stories and fit them into one book that makes sense. Every day is so different and so many different people and things and experiences. It was good to find meaning in a lot of chaos. You’re not inventing it, you’re sort of discovering something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Finally, I ask her if she has any advice for how best to treat buskers. “I know that it is difficult to open the case every day and play. It’s super vulnerable,” she says. “Even when I don’t have money or am in hurry, I will make eye contact with them and acknowledge and smile and nod. ‘I see you and appreciate your music.’ Just acknowledging that that person is doing something means everything.”
Nisha Coleman’s book launch for Busker takes place December 4 at Drawn and Quarterly (211 Bernard) at 7 p.m. She warns that it is not a typical book launch, but a musical one. Expect her to “talk about Paris and bring the book to life in a storytelling kind of way.”