Their venue? Everywhere. Their audience? Anyone who walks by.
Street musicians are a mainstay on Philly sidewalks and parks during the summer months, adding more flavor to the city than pretzels, cheesesteaks and TastyKakes cooked together. Many play for money; all play for the love of music.
When the economy tanked almost two years ago and money got tight, 56-year-old Michael Mantra knew he needed a part-time gig, but didn’t know what he could do other than selling insurance. That’s when a friend gave him a battery-powered amplifier and suggested that he try playing his guitar on the street.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’” he recalls. “But I played music all my life.”
Mantra, a 1971 graduate of Central High, played guitar professionally for 20 years, so strumming it on the street seemed like a practical option. He started out covering artists that inspired him in his younger years, like the Beatles.
“Everyone loves ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ” he says, speaking loudly over the traffic. “I’m a product of the ‘60s ... Music’s changed a lot since then,” he says with a sigh, as he leans on a footstool at the corner of Broad and Walnut streets, his usual spot.
But Mantra hasn’t. Wearing black-rimmed sunglasses and a black brouillet, his hippie style is as noticeable as his music, which you can hear in Center City four to five days a week. After a year of busking, Mantra says he can rake in anywhere from $40 to more than $100 a day; unlike many street musicians, who tend to come out in the warm, tourist-heavy months, Mantra’s been playing year-round. It’s enough to cover his expenses and home in Southwest Philly, but he jokes that it’s never enough.
Sirens loudly whiz by, loud enough to drown out the amp. But Mantra barely seems to notice. Casually surveying his surroundings, checking if he has anyone’s attention, he nods his head, entertained, as if everything in front of him is a stage.
“That’s a great thing, the sirens,” he says, smiling. “It’s like a nonstop reality movie, and you’re in the midst of it.”
Ananias “Peter” Pettit
Ananias “Peter” Pettit has been tapping piano keys since he was a child, but never imagined music would be his sole income at 58. Pettit is homeless; a cart overflowing with belongings is all he has to his name.
But the man can play. His pipes are clear, soothing and full of passion belting out Barry White’s “I’ve Got So Much to Give,” which he dedicates to Maria, his sister who died of leukemia at 25 in 1978.
Two precariously stacked plastic crates serve as a piano bench. His large body spills over it, sometimes causing him to lose balance and fall.
“It happens,” he says, laughing it off as he restacks them. He starts again. “I’ve got soooo much to give to you … gonna take a lifetimmme!”
PW's Music Issue 2014