Meet Philly's Street Musicians

Their venue? Everywhere. Their audience? Anyone who walks by.

By Matt Petrillo
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Jul. 20, 2010

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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. 

Michael Mantra

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!”

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Ken Parker said... on Jul 21, 2010 at 09:49PM

“Thanks to PW for its recognition of three outstanding street performers. They and others like them perform a vital service for our city. As sometime such a player myself, I recognize the truth of what Michael Mantra says about the intimacy and directness these very public venues promote. Let's do what we can to make music a vital part of our public life.”

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2. Michael Mantra said... on Jul 26, 2010 at 12:27PM

“I don't make $100 a day...Are you trying to get me robbed?...All the con men come out in the summer, and I am sometimes bombarded by bums and would-be thieves...Also, not mentioned in the article is the fact that I have a great and professionally produced CD, available directly from me or CDBaby...Also, I work with the group AUDIO EMOTIF, a world fusion trio featuring myself on guitars, electric violin and percussion...Our new album 'ACTS' will be available in late August or September.............................Peace to you, Michael Mantra”

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3. jimmy costello said... on Aug 5, 2010 at 08:04AM

“it is certainly not about the money, but people gotta eat. Any money merely indicates that the music makes people feel good. Levi Sungu’Ra and Urban Shamans and others bring out such love in people - and the smiles and the dancing of listeners is so powerful! The city should find a grant to subsidize these guys!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 10, 2010 at 06:06PM

“The mid-west city, where I live, offers grant money each summer for street musicians and entertainers to perform their art one evening a week on the main street business district.

And in Philadelphia, there is Summer in the City, and appreciated by residents. Thank you to PW and others,”

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5. Anonymous said... on Aug 11, 2010 at 11:19AM

“Any gigs financed by the City of Philadelphia require the intervention of a someone connected to the Democratic party who can steer you to the correct 'person in charge'...A musician seeking to get a booking on a City gig, festival etc. will never get one by just 'asking around'...You will be traveling in an endless circle...It is another type of patronage job.”

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6. Sir Jesse Andrus said... on May 2, 2012 at 12:53PM

“Levi brings a beautiful spirit with his music, and the people can't help but dance, young and old, which requires balance and love for what he does. Ive seen him alone on many occasions with the same enthusiasm, as long as he has people around. If you give freely, your art to the people, you will be rewarded, with smiles and gratuities.
Peace and Love”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 10, 2014 at 03:03AM

“You know what would be a wonderful thing? Dedicating a city park to street performers. A place to go for both the musicians and the people who do enjoy their creativity and talent. People that enjoy it, and tourists alike would get to experience their talents, and the performers would make more money also. Then again, that would be too pure. We would have to get licensing and permits, and then the city would want their cut.... Not everything on this planet is taxable... I guess I just thwarted my own idea in one paragraph. But it was a nice idea for a minute wasn't it?”


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