Soundtrack of the streets


If you’ve taken a stroll down to the corner of Cornmarket and Queen Streets, then you’ve noticed that the city of Oxford is bustling with buskers, teeming with troubadours, and mottled with musicians. These home-grown entertainers range from magicians to contortionists to jugglers, but the most common street performer is the musician, guided to Oxford’s streets in the hopes of making some extra cash, promoting their services or albums, or being recorded on someone’s phone and becoming the next Youtube sensation.

Some of these street musicians perform at the same spot so regularly that their repertoires become anthems for the people who live and work in the surrounding buildings; in a sense, they  become neighbours. Here is just a sampling of the talent that you may find as you round the corner at Carfax.

Lawrence and Lucas

Outside the Vodafone shop on Cornmarket on a recent Sunday afternoon, the familiar tunes of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’, Muse’s ‘Uprising’, and Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ could be heard, although their usual pop synths were replaced with the strongly evocative sound of the cello. Lawrence and Lucas, a local duo of brothers, are the two young cellists behind the music who have taken advantage of their hometown’s excellent opportunities for  showcasing talent.

The brothers, respectively 15 and 13 years old, have taken a cue from the Croatian cello duo known (rather unoriginally) as 2Cellos, who shot to internet fame last year for their bow-shredding interpretation of ‘Smooth Criminal’.

“We’ve been playing the cello since we were quite young,” said Lawrence, the elder brother. “When we saw the video [of 2Cellos] on Youtube, we thought that we might try that as well.” Since the brothers already possess a great talent at such young ages, there’s no doubt where the honing of their craft may take them.

Ian and Tanya

Outside  the M&S on Queen Street, you might get to hear your favorite movie theme from ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘Star Wars’—played on the tuba.  Ian, who says he has been playing the tuba for 52 years, plays at this spot regularly, and he usually brings no sheet music with him. “If someone asks me to play something,” he said, “I’ll have them sing it for me and I can usually figure out how to play it.”

Ian plays everything from the Beatles to showtunes, and the soft low sound of his tuba is very calming when heard over the racket of Oxford shoppers. On Mondays and Fridays, he is joined by his friend Tanya, who has played with him in a band for three years. “I have a day job for the rest of the week,” said Tanya. When the two tubists play together, they harmonise using sheet music and enjoy playing classic songs that are easily recognisable to passers-by. On the right day, walking down Queen Street may be like walking down memory lane.

Otis Lawrence

While Ian and Tanya take advantage of the morning shifts at M&S, Otis Lawrence rules that territory by mid-afternoon. Armed with his saxophone and backing track, Otis plays lounge music standards such as Lionel Richie’s and Diana Ross’ ‘My Endless Love’ and Bryan Adams’ ‘We’re in Heaven’,  as well as Adele’s ever-popular ‘Someone Like You’, which is played so often that it has become the unofficial theme of Queen Street. Otis is an actor-musician who concentrates more on gigging when he isn’t involved in a theatrical production, and he says he has been playing the saxophone for about ten to fifteen years. Based in Reading and London, Lawrence comes to Oxford during the day and then does other gigs at night.

“I also play the trumpet,” said the multi-talented musician, “but I play more classical stuff on that instrument. I also play cello, guitar, and I do some songwriting as well.” Thanks to his public performances, Otis says he has booked weddings, parties, and even funerals.  As to why people keep requesting him to play ‘Someone Like You’, he is slightly baffled. “It’s quite a depressing song,” said Otis. “I mean, I understand the sentiment of it, and think the overall melody and construction of the song is quite good. But for some reason that depressing song makes people feel happy. I guess it’s a comfort song.”

Eva Lazarus, Lil’ Rhys and Mr. Woodnote

Sunny days in Oxford’s city centre can be punctuated by jazzy riffs, exuberant rapping, boisterous beats, and soulful song. The jazz-funk-hip-hop trio of singer Eva Lazarus, rapper Lil’ Rhys, and saxophone player and beatboxer Mr. Woodnote are a rare treat, as they are professional touring musicians who draw foot-tapping crowds in front of the HSBC on Cornmarket Street. “Wherever the sun shines, we go there, and for the last two months it’s been shining in Oxford,” said Lazarus.

The reason the group likes sunny days is because rain and moisture is bad for the delicate vintage equipment used by Mr. Woodnote, such as the loop pedal on which he records live his beatboxing and saxophone stylings.  While the trio’s sound is very distinctive, Lazarus says that is not true for the band’s name for the moment. “As a collective, we’re actually trying to think of a group name,” she said, “because ‘Mr. Woodnote, Lil’ Rhys, and Eva Lazarus’ is a bit of a mouthful.”

For the past three years, the trio has been busy promoting their music around the globe. “The boys have toured Russia and Europe, we’ve been to India together, and we’re doing a tour in Australia and New Zealand in January,” said Lazarus. “It’s crazy, but Youtube is an amazing thing. If you look at one of the big crowds, you’ll watch how many people have their phones out. There’s a really high amount of videos of us on the internet, and it’s how we get a lot of our shows booked.” If you happen to chance upon the trio the next time they bring their gorgeously-executed beats to the streets of Oxford, be sure to pick up their album. It may be the next big thing.