Popular street performers with a regular following

From MRT stations and underground tunnels to breezy waterfronts and busy road junctions, the streets are alive with the sound of music - music by buskers, to be exact.

Their performances range from playing traditional instruments such as the erhu to cosy, soulful numbers that will not be out of place in a jazz bar.

Some of them have grown so popular they draw regular crowds. Younger buskers, in particular, are savvy in nurturing a fanbase, setting up Facebook pages to publicise their performances and uploading their videos on YouTube.

According to the National Arts Council (NAC), the number of under-30 buskers has almost doubled since last year. In Singapore, buskers are required by law to apply for a letter of endorsement from NAC. There are about 200 buskers here who sing, play music, dance or practise a craft such as drawing and painting. Five years ago, there was half that number of buskers.

An NAC spokesman says "generally, people are more receptive and appreciative of busking in Singapore".

Take for example civil servant Rohana Akhbar, 27, who gladly parted with $5 the first time she heard father-son duo Mashruddin Saharuddin, 62, and Nizaruddin Mashruddin, 25, performing outside Tampines MRT station.

"Now I donate $2 each time I stop to catch a couple of songs. They really do make good music."

Aspiring street performers have to go through auditions, which are held four times a year. Since 2013, they must also attend a pre-audition workshop, which familiarises them with the busking scheme.

Successful applicants are issued letters of endorsement, which are valid for one year.

There are about 80 to 100 designated busking locations in Singapore. These include the pedestrian mall outside Ion Orchard, Haji Lane and East Coast Park.

SundayLife! talks to four savvy buskers who have made their mark here.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg


ST 20150308 NSBUSKERZX2V 1122917e

Against the glittering evening skyline at the Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade, singer-songwriter Berry Ni cuts a romantic figure, strumming her guitar while singing soulful English and Mandarin tunes, such as a jazzed-up version of Fly Me To The Moon.

It is no surprise, then, that one unintended side effect of her crooning was that one man proposed to his girlfriend in front of her.

The song that caused him to spring the question? The Moon Represents My Heart by Taiwanese songstress Teresa Teng. "I wanted to stop, but I had to keep singing," says Ms Ni with a laugh.

A procurement manager at a packaging firm by day, the single Singaporean, who is in her early 30s and originally from Shanghai, has been busking on weekend nights for more than a year.

Her instruments of choice are the guitar, ukulele and melodica, which combines a keyboard and a harmonica.

While she sings mainly covers, Ms Ni also includes original songs. In fact, she has released an album, Fly Away, which is available for sale on iTunes. On her Facebook fanpage, she informs her more than 400 fans of her performance dates.

She has a charismatic stage presence and the size of her audience is decent - a crowd of about 40. She has three years of vocal training under her belt and has been in a pop-rock band, The Blackberries, for four years.

But she still got the jitters when she first started busking at Boat Quay about a year ago. "The original plan was to perform at the sculpture of the big bird (Bird by Fernando Botero at UOB Plaza). I was so nervous I moved to an underground shelter near Clarke Quay."

But she persevered, seeing busking as way to "add colour to the city" that has been her home for the past seven years.

Through the extra income earned from busking, Ms Ni hopes to finance her living expenses when she moves to New York in August to pursue a master's in music therapy at New York University.

She is a little nervous about moving to another country as Singapore is her comfort zone. But ever the trouper, she adds: "I want to encourage others to do the same as me - never give up your passion and don't be afraid."

Ms Ni performs at Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade on most Fridays and weekends from 7.30 to 10pm. Check www.facebook. com/Berry.Ni.Jiaping for information.


ST 20150308 NSBUSKERG96R 1122911eMr Nizaruddin Mashruddin (right) and his father, Mr Mashruddin Saharuddin (left), are a familiar sight in Tampines. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

There is a new attraction in Tampines Central that is fast gaining the attention of the public, and it is not a new mall or the latest hipster cafe.

It is a hunky singer-guitarist. Armed with a deep voice and killer biceps (considerately displayed in tank tops), Mr Nizaruddin Mashruddin, 25, sings and plays pop hits such as Animals by American band Maroon 5, drawing crowds of enthusiastic fans.

Accompanying him on the cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument, is his visually impaired father, Mr Mashruddin Saharuddin, 62, who also provides backing vocals.

The shy bachelor tells SundayLife! that he has received love letters and friend requests on Facebook from female fans, who request photos with him. Once, a group of girls even lined up to stuff money into his top at the end of a performance.

His father sighs, in mock jealousy: "All the girls are after him. I feel hurt, not even an auntie wants to come after me."

The fame enjoyed by the father-son duo is relatively recent, sparked by a video posted online last August by a passer-by. It has garnered more than 55,000 hits on YouTube.

But not many know that they did not just pop up overnight. In fact, they are a familiar sight to long-time residents of Tampines, having performed there for the past 11 years.

When Mr Nizaruddin was 14, his father discovered that the teenager was learning to play the guitar in secret.

"When my father heard me playing the guitar, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Are you ready for an adventure?'" says the full-time musician, who has a Grade Seven qualification in piano and Grade Eight in violin.

He recalls being a very nervous performer in those early days. It did not help that some even called him a beggar.

"Even my friends were uncomfortable with talking about my busking then," he says. "Now, people see it as something honourable. My confidence level is up."

It helps that he has a good mentor in his father.

In a way, Mr Mashruddin was a trailblazer in the busking scene here, starting out in 1993 before it was legal to perform music in the streets. He was once arrested for vagrancy.

This was after being a sessionist for bands at venues such as hotel bars in Shangri-La and Holiday Inn in the 1970s and 1980s. He quit the scene when foreign performers started undercutting his rates in the 1990s.

Once he got his busking licence, he set his sights on Tampines and has been a regular fixture since.

Mr Mashruddin, who can also play the piano, guitar and harmonica, among other instruments, proudly proclaims that they "are performers, not buskers".

Though he declines to reveal how much they earn from busking, he says they get by on their takings. The pair also take on corporate gigs and weddings to supplement their income.

Mr Mashruddin, who is married to a nurse and has two older sons who are also musically inclined, says he intends to leave the busking scene and hand over the reins to his youngest son. "Old man and young man - we don't match," he says.

But he is full of pride for Mr Nizaruddin.

"Last time, people would just drop some coins and leave. With Nizar, we are getting a lot of fans. He has changed the busking scene."

The pair performs outside Tampines MRT station on most Mondays to Thursdays from 8.30 to 10.30pm.


ST 20150308 NSBUSKER 1122910eMr Tony Loh has run several businesses, but nothing gives him as much satisfaction as performing. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Mr Tony Loh, 57, plays the banhu outside The Cathay on most days.

His tool is a traditional two-stringed instrument used in Chinese opera - a variation of the erhu - but his tunes are English and Chinese pop hits.

His repertoire comprises about 500 songs, from Fly Me To The Moon, popularised by American crooner Frank Sinatra, and Careless Whisper by English pop star George Michael to At Least There Is You by Hong Kong diva Sandy Lam and Girl Next Door by Malaysian singer A-niu.

"I picked these popular songs because I want my audience to be able to relate to them," he says. "What's the point of playing an old classical Chinese song which nobody knows?"

He picked up music almost entirely from observing and imitating other musicians. A Grade Three certificate in music theory is his only music qualification.

His life-long love of music started at age eight, when he tagged along with his late father to Teochew opera performances. His father had played the gaohu - another Chinese bowed string instrument. There,

Mr Loh picked up the flute and drums.

While studying in Balestier Hill Technical School, he joined a Chinese orchestra and learnt to play the erhu and pipa from the instructors and other students.

Over the years, he has also played the guitar in lounges and restaurants, as well as the banhu at weddings and other special events.

To pay the bills, he started and ran several businesses in the past - creating Chinese banners for wakes and special events, making leather goods such as bags and shoes, and running a hawker stall selling Teochew porridge.

But none of these business gave him as much satisfaction as performing.

Mr Loh, who has been divorced for more than 30 years and has a daughter, says: "Music is my life, something I can't stop doing. In my youth, I dreamt of being a singer or conductor for an orchestra. But now, I'm content just to perform every day."

For the last four years, he has been busking for about four hours a day, either in front of The Cathay or in the underpass between Ngee Ann City and Lucky Plaza.

Every day, he aims to make $100. Once, he made $800 playing for nine hours straight.

Says Mr Loh, who rents a room in a five-room flat in Bukit Timah: "I love the freedom of being a busker. If I want to pack up early, I can.

"And if I am in the mood to play more, I can also do so."

Mr Loh performs outside The Cathay on most days from 5 to 9pm. If it is raining, he may perform in the underpass between Ngee Ann City and Lucky Plaza.

bang@sph.com.sg