A THOUSAND WORDS | HEARTSTRINGS

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The Northsider is proud to present a new A Thousand Words photo essay. In ‘Heartstrings’ photographer Rod Ceballos covers the story of two local buskers, their love of music, Melbourne and each other. This photo essay is the first of Rod’s ‘Music People’ series.

 

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To walk around Melbourne means to taste the foods of the world, see art on both brick walls and gallery frames, hear all styles of music by all types of buskers, and perhaps even find love.

And that is the city’s appeal today. Tall buildings and sporting grounds are fine, but it’s the infinite possibilities of living that draw people here. People like Pedro Fuentes from Chile, arriving with his double bass and little else. People like Hong Mei and her Erhu Violin, an engineering student needing to make ends meet. And people like those who stop to hear them busk, always blocks apart, never imagining how the disparate coins they toss are saved for a united dream.

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The first time Pedro visited his sister in Melbourne he planned to have a nice vacation and return home. As befits a professional musician, his double bass was the first thing he packed. This was a fortunate call, as within weeks of arriving he was invited to play with the Victorian College of the Arts Orchestra. Pedro had visited VCA out of curiosity and learned they needed a bass player. Thus he would spend his vacation practicing, with a short time to master what the orchestra had been developing for months. Surpassing expectations, Pedro’s efforts would be rewarded with an open invitation to play with VCA whenever in Australia.

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In 2009, with a real Australian vacation pending, Pedro returned and played with the VCA Orchestra once more. The work kept him busy, but he was determined to find time to explore Melbourne. He was surprised then to find himself at St Andrew’s Market one Saturday, amidst the trees and with his instrument, busking for the first time. “My sister had a stall there and convinced me to play” he says. “I was nervous because I didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t know how people would react. By the end I was very happy. I made $200 and everyone was really nice.” This was Pedro’s introduction to busking.

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Pedro’s third visit was occupied with regular concerts with the Melbourne Youth Symphony Orchestra, and some casual busking to make ends meet. He now lived with Australian friends who advised him about Talent Visas and supported him throughout his stay. They knew he had the qualities to obtain this visa, and all it would require was for him to be out of Australia while it was processed.

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Residing in New Zealand for most of 2012, he turned to busking as his primary means of support. While often playing with the Auckland Symphony Orchestra and recording with local musicians, he came to see benefits in busking, and how it could help him develop musically. “I came to realise that it let me control my schedule and practice more than any other job.” Pedro explains “I could earn more than in a cafe, for example. I could play as much as I wanted, when I wanted, and just focus on my music.”

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Two years later Pedro is back in Melbourne, now as a permanent resident. He is renting a place of his own, and playing regularly with the Hopkins Symphony and the Victorian Youth Orchestra.  While busking is no longer his main activity, he appreciates the chance to practice in public whilst earning money. His life is uncomplicated, focused only on improving his skills. That is, till the day he rode down Swanston Street and heard an Erhu Violin for the first time.

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Hong Mei had been in Melbourne a year by the time the curly haired man stopped to hear her play, and it hadn’t been the easiest period. Having come from China to study electronic engineering at Latrobe University, she had found student life to be expensive. She’d worked briefly in a Fish & Chips shop to earn money, but it wasn’t till someone suggested busking that life in Australia started to feel right.

 

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A lifelong student of the Erhu Violin and holder of a Level 10 music certificate in China, Hong Mei had always been a focused individual. Yet, that same discipline that helped her academically, had proven an obstacle when trying to connect with many fellow students. Her quiet nature and taste in music were far removed from what others sought in university life, and from their rock and pop playlists.

 

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It was a pleasant surprise for Hong Mei that she would finally start feeling at home when playing to complete strangers in the street. “The first time I played I was very nervous. I had no experience busking and didn’t have an amplifier or background music. It was just me playing. I played for two hours and made $70 dollars, and that was more than I made in other jobs so I was very happy.”

 

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After one year Hong Mei was a seasoned busker, using an amplifier and background music. By now she knew the best places and times to play, and wore traditional clothing to enhance her performance. “When I started people only heard me within three meters, but with the amplifier I could reach up to 8 or 10 meters. It really helped against the noise of trams and cars.”

 

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When the thin man stopped his bike to listen, Hong Mei couldn’t take notice. When focused on her notes, she can only afford brief smiles to her public. Pedro was too shy to speak that first time, but he did return for a second visit, and was now aware of the musician as well as her sound. “We spoke and I gave her a copy of a CD I had recorded.” He says. “Actually, I didn’t understand him because my English was very basic, so I just let him speak.” Hong Mei clarifies “He gave me his CD but I only could play it weeks later. I emailed him then and we met to talk about recording CDs and busking.”

 

 

Despite their language difficulties that first meeting went well. Both Hong Mei and Pedro felt they were in the presence of someone who understood them, and enjoyed the unusual experience. “After that I would visit her often when she played in the CBD. And she came to see me play in Lygon Street” tells Pedro. “I remember he said I could use his spots when he wasn’t there,” says Hong Mei “This was nice because most buskers don’t invite other musicians to play in their best spots.”

 

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“In busking, spots where people are always rushing are not good.” Pedro explains. “Or places that are too noisy either” adds Hong Mei. They explain the discipline also has specific requirements “Many people have formal education, but being a good musician does not make you a good busker. You must play well but you must also be respectful. In the CBD you can play for two hours and then you must move on” they explain “this way everyone has a chance to play.”

 

 

Recalling their first meetings Pedro says he often visited Hong Mei with flowers in hand, and a box of chocolates once. Hong Mei in turn would visit him busking and gave him a pair of finger-less gloves for playing on cold days. “I still have the box; I never ate them” she smiles. Pedro admits having no idea where the gloves are today, but says he’s kept all other gifts, somewhere.

 

 

“When we met I thought he was a real gentleman. And he is!” She explains “I didn’t understand everything he said but I liked talking with him.” Within a month of their first meeting Hong Mei’s vacation allowed them to explore more of Melbourne. These urban excursions marked the start of their romance, bonding over music and ideas; easily bypassing any cultural differences that appeared.

 

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Melbourne’s mix of nationalities means that any combination of races holding hands seems normal, but in the summer of 2015 Pedro found China to be a different story. The curious stares received as they walked out of the Nanjing airport made him very aware he was becoming part of a different culture, and increased his anxiety over meeting his future mother in law. As an only child, it was important for Hong Mei to have her mother’s blessing before going further in the relationship. “When I told my mother she advised me to think things carefully but make my own decision. Still, I wanted her to meet Pedro and fortunately they liked each other. She likes music and didn’t care that he was not Chinese.”

 

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Upon their return Hong Mei moved in with Pedro, claiming a space for her and her Erhu violin in the house, while Pedro moved his double bass to a corner of the living room. Only eight months had passed since they’d first met, and life now felt much more complete. They kept busking at their regular spots, selling their CDs, and saving their money for a special objective.

 

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On the 26th of July of 2015, just a year after starting their relationship, Pedro Fuentes and Hong Mei were married. It was a small ceremony at the Melbourne Marriage Registry, made more special by the presence of both of their mothers. Their sessions busking had helped them prepare for their wedding, paying for rings, invitations and all else the event required.

 

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“We managed to organize everything without stressing. Hong Mei had a traditional Chinese dress but also wanted to wear white, so she wore both. We also found a nice Latin restaurant where we could have our dinner” tells Pedro, happy with how everything came together “We were married on my mother’s birthday, and I was glad she could be here with us.”

 

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Today Hong Mei and Pedro live in the same inner city house, and play in the same spots as when they met. He is happy with his work in orchestras, she is eager to finish her studies, and both would like busking to be a part of their future.

After graduating Hong Mei aims to continue busking for practice, while Pedro believes it lets stay active and hone his skills. Soon he’ll have his license and be able to drive his gigantic bass to more places, and eventually they plan to move to a larger house, ideally with space for a small recording studio.

 

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The one cloud in their skies is the recent ban of amplifiers in the CBD. “If you are a busker you need an amplifier for people to hear you, but for now they are banned and things are more difficult.” says Pedro. It seems that when creating this ban, politicians and retailers focused exclusively on the issue of noise, with neither group able to comprehend there’s more to busking than gathering coins.

 

 

Melbourne is a cultural hot spot, but this entails more than galleries and museums that close at 05:00 pm. It’s also about street artists who put their lives into their work, bound only to their dreams and the appreciation of the public. Busking is about these dreams and how they become more real with every coin earned; it’s about how every song is a new chance, and how violins can pull your heartstrings into the unexpected.

Ultimately, as Hong Mei puts it “Busking makes the city beautiful.” And we all benefit from that.

 

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Rod is the Northsider’s photography editor, occasional photographer and random writer of bits and pieces. His number one fan is his oldest daughter, who thinks being published in Internet equals being famous – she’ll soon learn! To see more of this work click here.

 

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