Busking into the Rozsa Centre

By Lawrence Bailey

Busking for Smiles veterans Jamie Cullen and Cameron May have spent many an afternoon over a pint or two at the Den. The only difference this time out was that I brought my tape recorder. You see, this afternoon’s chat marked quite the occasion.

Almost four years after May and friend Steven Bleile thought it would be fun to regularly busk in the Social Sciences foyer, the BFS’s fifth Unplugged show and their first CD are a testament to how far the whole concept has come.

“In the first year, we didn’t even think it would be a club,” May recalls with a note of nostalgia. “It was something that was static. We were just busking for smiles, it was that simple.”

From there it got a life of its own.

Students, either interested or enheartened by Bleile, May and the rest of the Buskers, started asking what they could do to help and whether there was anything else the group did. In no time at all, the duo became a group and new ideas started pouring in.

“It was unreal,” says May. “All of a sudden communications students and business students started throwing out these ideas for shows and other things that Steve and I never even considered.”

One such student, Lance Farkas, wanted to put together a show to “showcase student talent in a professional setting.” Farkas set to work, and with the blessing and co-operation of fellow BFS members, Unplugged was the first in what would become a series of live performances.

“I was there helping Lance with the first Unplugged, watching him run around like a chicken with his head cut off,” laughs May. “But he got it done, and it was an amazing show.”

That first show, in March 2001, sowed the seeds for not only the whole series of performances, but also for an unnurtured, unseen niche on campus: live, acoustic music.

“The whole community has come a long way,” explains Cullen, this year’s organizer. “So far in fact that we now have a well-attended open mic night at the Double Mo.”

Cullen was driven to take up the Unplugged torch from the recently graduated Farkas by an article about Unplugged III in the Gauntlet last year. He saw a new approach to the event and ran with it. He took the show from its nurturing cocoon, the Boris Roubakine Recital Hall, and into a new era with the first ever show in the state-of-the-art Rozsa Centre.

“Once we realized that the first four Unpluggeds had sold out consistently, we figured maybe a bigger venue would be doable,” explains Cullen. “That’s when we decided to go to the Rozsa Centre.

“I also felt as though Lance, Cam and Steve had all left their mark on the club and I wanted to do something different for it before I graduated.”

Along with the ambitious shift in venue, May was brought in to help Cullen put out the first ever recording for the U of C’s Unplugged series. The CD, featuring 18 original tracks by 18 different artists all of whom were at one time or another associated with BFS, presented a few more legal and logistical problems than were originally anticipated.

“There were a lot of hoops to jump through,” concedes May.

“Fax machines got used,” Cullen pipes in. “Fax machines in Japan at 4:30 in the morning, no less.”

“Anti-depressants, love oils, lots of beer–those things were used as well,” May laughs.

No matter what tribulations were found on the road to the finished product, both May and Cullen are overjoyed with the result. While conceding it isn’t exactly studio quality sound–the recording was actually done in May’s bedroom through his computer–the meticulous attention to detail and the emotion and passion of the performers shines through.

“It’s amateur musicians recorded by an amateur recording artist,” admits May. “There are a few nit picky things I could focus on, but the overall quality is really good.”

As for the show itself, it boasts an impressive 14-artist line up: seven performers from previous shows and seven first timers. Despite the move to a more recognized venue, Cullen is looking to stick to the formula that has found so much success so far.

“This is, first and foremost, an event by students and for students. It is a show by amateur musicians that I feel tends to be more appreciated by students,” Cullen explains. “We’re going to try and take the Boris Roubakine show, move it to the Rozsa and do it the same way. Keep the atmosphere relaxed, crack a few jokes in between.”

“As a show, it’s very accessible,” adds May. “We’re starting to attract a lot more families and stuff, along with a lot of students. I just hope a lot more faculty and staff start making it out to appreciate what their students are doing.”

As for Cullen, May and the whole BFS crew, there is a real excitement and passion about the show, the CD and everything they are a part of. Just to talk to them about any of their projects–past, present or future–you get a real sense of why they do what they do.

“A lot of people are romanced by the idea of Busking for Smiles,” explains May. “It’s a beautiful concept that you just go play your guitar to help make people happy.”

Unplugged 5 will be held Fri., Mar. 14 at 8 p.m. in the Rozsa Centre. The line up includes 14 live artists and the night is hosted by Kevin Foster. Tickets are $7 at the Campus Ticket Centre or at the door, $6 for Busking for Smiles members.

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