D.C. Street Musicians

One of my favorite parts of spring in the Washington, D.C. area is return of the street musicians. They come out of hiding from a long, cold winter, hoping to enjoy the month or two of decent weather before summer really kicks in. And, thanks to the D.C. Metro system, they’re pretty much everywhere.

You see, D.C. is blessed with a lot of open, park-like areas that are scattered throughout the city in a system of traffic circles and streets originally designed by Pierre L’Enfant for crowd control. Combine that with the generally low scale of the buildings (by law, no building in Washington, D.C. can be taller than the Washington Monument), and you’ve got friendly, open spaces that lend themselves to groups of people and spectators. Onto this stage come D.C.’s street musicians, individuals and groups of artists, often with enough talent to betray a significant level of formal training. I enjoy taking time off in the middle of the workday in April, May and June just to stroll through some of these little mini-concerts.

And after doing this for a couple of years, I’ve gotten to know some of the acts pretty well. My favorite is a guitar player I’ve seen all over the city, and even out in the suburbs. He’s got a great set of Rasta dreads, usually tied back with a bandana, and he plays with both hands working on the neck of the guitar. I’ve seen this style used by guitarists for short periods of time, but this guy does it like that all the time. He’s actually very good, so the result is this intricate melody of notes that cascade over one another, with nothing in the way of chords weighing it down. He never sings when he’s working alone, but I’ve seen him at a rally in Dupont Circle where he belted out a few tunes. I liked the guitar better.

There’s another guitarist that works the Foggy Bottom area, near GWU. He’s not anywhere near as good on the guitar, but he’s a great singer. I’ve managed to miss my train more than once because I stopped to listen to this guy singing "California Dreamin’" or "Twist and Shout."

Then there are the saxophones and trumpets. There are at least three saxophones I can think of within half a mile of my office. Two of them need some serious practice, but the third one’s quite good. He’s got a bluesy, NewYork kind of sound that I find irresistible. Unfortunately, with the trumpets the choices aren’t so good. While there are at least half a dozen I’ve seen scattered throughout the city, I have yet to find one with enough talent to make me stay and watch.

There are a lot of international acts, too. Most mornings at the Farragut West Metro exit, for example, you can find a small Asian man playing what looks like some kind of Balinese or Indian guitar. I’m not familiar with it, but it’s got a very interesting sound. Then there is a whole group of guys in nearby Freedom Plaza who play what looks to be a variety of Peruvian instruments, including a pan flute. That’s right, a pan flute – but no Zamfir, I checked. Then there is the occasional Mexican group, replete with concertinas, maracas, drums and guitars, often accompanied by a singer.

All things considered, it’s a real treat to have this much music going on within walking distance from my office. It’s a pleasant way to spend time during the day, and it adds immeasurably to the rich social fabric of the city.

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