World Buskers Festival.

Organised pandemonium takes over Christchurch, New Zealand, as each January locals and visitors of all ages flock to open-air city malls, the city’s cultural precinct, and out to the seaside suburb of New Brighton to witness the world’s very best busker talent: the World Buskers Festival. Belly laughs, amazement, admiration, and surprise fill their lives for ten days every summer.

This is when artists, from countries as diverse as Portugal, UK, Japan, Australia, Italy, the USA wing their way to Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island, to provide over four-hundred free shows – although, as it’s their livelihood, optional donations are always welcome.

“The festival’s reputation for excellence and our great locations here in the heart of Christchurch’s cultural and heritage  precinct  are  big  drawcards for both international and domestic visitors, as well as for  local  residents,  and  it  has  become  an  icon event for the city” festival director Jodi Wright tells me. Such is the reputation of this event that, sitting in her office under the old university observatory, Jodi is inundated with pleas for an invitation from buskers around the world.

Hub of activities for the dare-devils, outrageous comedians, juggling divas, and other mischievous people here to entertain, is the Art Centre, site of Christchurch’s first university and the first place in the British Empire to admit women.  Some famous alumni are; poet Denis Glover, novelist and playwright Dame Ngaio Marsh, Sir Karl Popper scientist and philosopher, and our celebrated artist, Rita Angus. This university is also where the great 19th century scientist, Sir Ernst Rutherford, had his ‘den’ and where he explored his theories which led to the splitting of the atom.

When plans emerged for the Gothic Revival buildings to be demolished – in the 1970s when the university moved to a new site – Christchurch residents pleaded for its retention. They finally won the arguments and the resulting Arts Centre is now firmly established as the cultural hub of Christchurch and is one of New Zealand’s most significant historical and cultural attractions: a fitting place for the smash hit the World Buskers Festival has become in the Christchurch calendar. Numbers attending the shows have more than doubled since its inception in 1994.

Christchurch was New Zealand’s first city (by royal charter in 1856); is lauded for its gardens, and sits on a large plain between the Southern Alps and the Pacific Ocean. It could easily be called festival city: as well as the buskers, festivals celebrating the arts, writers, jazz, and floral themes are just a few of the others. Known as ‘The Garden City’, it has won many national and international horticultural awards and these show the importance locals place in having a beautiful city in which to live, work, and play: there are maps of great drives and walks around the city available from the information centre in ‘the Square’ – the original centre of Christchurch.

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863 and acknowledged as possessing the finest collection of exotic and indigenous plants in New Zealand, is co-opted as the setting for the children’s part of the Buskers Festival. Witches, magic, and juggling create fear and fun with the kids: parents love the acts too.

Each evening the Busker Comedy Club, a cabaret-style, outdoor variety show in the Arts Centre grounds, is packed with people, many of who arrive  an hour or so early with rugs and cushions to sit on. Others have booked one of the tables which are well-supplied with tasty nibbles and drinks to enjoy as they laugh at the adult-only entertainment.

Over the lunch hour, under the gaze of an old statue of one of the city fathers and alongside modern sculpture and the cathedral that dominates the skyline of Cathedral Square, I watch a Canadian as he flouts the rules of physics. Using his engineering degree he tests the quantum theory by impaling a cabbage on a spike on his head and tells us he is proud of his pasty, lanky look and ability to out-talk a senior citizen. Known by his stage name – the Comedy Engineer – he also says that ‘comedy has been waiting a long time for an engineer.’

The crowd remains when he finishes and soon Mario, Queen of the Circus, takes over the pitch. Winner of awards in Germany, Switzerland and France, he is a master of impeccable timing and phenomenal juggling skills: this is showmanship at its best and I loved every minute of it.

Recalling his show, a word of warning seems appropriate. Some performers, like this queen of the circus, may ask you to volunteer as a participant in their show. However, as the festival programme says: ‘please feel free to decline their request (for any reason) and use common sense and caution at all times’.

Nevertheless, the only injury I witnessed was to a friend’s ego when she was surprised by one of the roving acts – at the airport! Just off the plane, she was welcomed to festival city by The Crowd Maintenance Crew when they popped out from behind a wall and dusted her down with their feather duster ‘just making sure you are in tip top condition’ they tell her.

Other roving acts this past January included a pavement artist, living statues, and two local women – The Chick Taylors – who are the personification of improvisation with a range of characters from the Paranoid French or German through to Retro English Geeks: they are up for anything and it’s great to see locals in such a high-calibre extravaganza such as this festival.

Featured on the Discovery Channel programme, “Fantastic Festivals of the World,” this one-of-a-kind event extends out the beach suburb of New Brighton which sits on the long sweep of Pegasus Bay and the Pacific.

It was a hot sunny, beach-suburb-appropriate day when I caught one of the very popular shows by the Blackstreet Boys. Discovered by festival organiser Jodi Wright as she explored Venice Beach, California, these young men are irreverent, light on their feet, full of mischief and the crowd and I loved their performance. I hear that when they are not on the streets of LA they teach and choreograph would-be artists – this has included MC Hammer.

Locals claim the Christchurch cultural precinct is the finest in the southern hemisphere. Planned by the city founders – some 150 years ago – to create a cultural heart for the province (Canterbury) it is still a wonderful backdrop to many of the arts and heritage activities of Christchurch.

‘I’ll meet you at the Arts Centre’ or ‘let’s have coffee, dinner, or supper – before or after the show,’ can be overheard wherever locals gather. The old university, with over forty galleries, studios, theatres, cinemas, cafes, restaurants, shops, bars, weekly arts market, fabulous bead shop, and ethnic food stalls, this vibrant place is the perfect backdrop for the World Buskers Festival.

Park your car as this  an easy area to explore by foot or tram, and most of the activities are free, and include places such as; New Zealand’s only remaining Provincial Chamber buildings, Our City O-Tautahi with its changing exhibitions, the fabulous glass fronted Christchurch Art Gallery, the Canterbury Museum, and the Centre of Contemporary Art. So when you are exhausted from laughing at the class buskers acts that are spread around the city, complete your stay in Christchurch by enriching your senses with food, fun and culture in this very public heart of a great city. See you there!

for other world festivals check out 2camels website.

©Heather Hapeta 2008

Author: Heather - the kiwi travel writer

Nomadic travel-writer, photographer, author & blogger. See more on http://kiwitravelwriter.com and Amazon for my books (heather hapeta)

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