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Boston's Bucket Brigade

If You Like the Show, Let the Bucket Know!

Written by Braden Campbell
Video and Photo by Guru Amar Khalsa, Ryan Breslin and Chris Rattey

Jermaine Carter pulls a black wire cart holding a stack of five-gallon plastic buckets up the Brookline Avenue overpass, parting the sea of jerseys fleeing Fenway Park.

Ahead, a man squatting on a milk crate beats a rhythm on buckets, pot lids, and aluminum pans; the thuds, pops, and clangs echo over the roar of rush-hour traffic and the ballgame crowd.

The man stops as Carter approaches.

“What happened on Lansdowne?”

“Kicked us out,” says Dewan Brown, Carter’s cousin. “Kicked me out.”

“How long you think it’s gonna last for?”

“I don’t know. They got it on paperwork. A printout, ‘The Bucket Boys.’  They just shut it down.”

Brown lights a cigarette. Carter, 33, asks for a drag. His cousin obliges. Carter rests against the overpass fence and pulls.

It was here, in the shadow of Fenway Park, that Brown and Carter picked up bucket drumming 18 years ago. The Bucket Boys, as the cousins are known, haven’t missed a home opener since.

They spent many afternoons hanging out downtown as teens, drawn to the bucket drummers pulling crowds dozens deep by Fenway, in Downtown Crossing, and Faneuil Hall. For a few years they acted as roadies, helping the drummers move their gear around the city. They started playing themselves midway through the ‘97 season. Now, it’s how they make their living. It’s a good one, most days.

His cigarette finished, Brown resumes playing. Moments later, a police officer arrives. Brown packs his stuff.

DRUMMING BY THE BOOK

There are no laws on the books prohibiting street performance, but a few conduct ordinances can apply. Today it’s the noise ordinance, as it often is. Bucket drummers have been moving for threats of citation or arrest since as long as Carter can remember, but lately, he says, things have gotten worse.

“For years, we haven’t had this problem,” Carter said. “We’ve usually been roaming around in comfort. It’s not new, but it’s new, know what I mean?”

The men head to the end of the bridge closer to Kenmore Square. Brown grabs dinner at Popeye’s Fried Chicken across the street and heads home to pick up his daughter. Carter unpacks his kit, placing in front of him two metal grates. He sits one bucket, mouth down, on each. He puts a third on the bare concrete to his left and a fourth, mouth up, a few feet in front. To his right, he lays two six-inch pot lids face up. He slips his feet into a pair of upturned aluminum pans and, after a few adjustments, begins to play.

It takes maybe 30 seconds for the first passerby to drop a bill in his bucket. A minute later, another follows. Then another, and another, and another. In ten minutes, the layer of green blocks out half the bucket’s bottom, and it keeps rising.

Carter will play here until the Fenway crowd thins out, then he’ll grab a bite to eat and find somewhere to hang until his second act outside a concert venue or comedy show. He’ll end his night by a hopping bar or nightclub at last call, hoping for wallets loosened by too many cocktails.

On a good, long day – Fenway, concert, club — he’ll make as much as $400, he says.

He could have made half that today on Lansdowne alone had he been able to play, but after years spent shuffling around for noise complaints, Carter has learned not to dwell.

Barring his blocking the street or aggressively soliciting, Carter can perform so long as his playing is not “plainly audible” from 100 feet away “by a person of normal hearing,” according to Ord. 16-26.1c-1 of the City of Boston Municipal Code. It’s an objective threshold, one easily breached in the ears of a nearby resident or business owner, and for that matter one consistently exceeded by ambient noise, car honks, and industrial air conditioners.

But while the noise ordinance is the most-cited reason for moving drummers like himself around, Carter blames something else: envy.

“It pisses people off to see us get this type of money,” Carter said. “I felt what [those who complain] were saying is, ‘These guys shouldn’t be able to make that much money doing that.’”

THE ELDER STATESMAN

It’s 5 p.m., and hundreds of commuters are streaming in and out of Park Street by the minute. Those exiting the station are met with rhythmic pops, rattles, and clangs.

A bearded man with a red bandana tied around his forehead sits against a vestibule on Boston Common by the corner of Tremont and Park, patting the beat on his thighs and tapping his feet. Two hipsters in loud jackets and worn leather boots smoke cigarettes and nod along.

A handful of others form a broken semi-circle a dozen feet in front of David Bowdre — who bobs his head, half-smiling — as he tears into his kit.

Bowdre looks the part of a bluesman in his jet-black Sox cap, dark shades and black hoodie. From time to time, he lifts his head to the crowd, to smile or nod or shout “Hey! Hey-ohhh!” in his bassy growl.

A woman pulls close to take a video with her phone. A man walks up and drops $5 in the bucket before heading down Tremont. Bowdre turns to him.

“Hey, hold up,” he says, keeping time with his right hand as he digs through a bucket with his left. He hands the man a CD.

“CD’s, $5! I got two left!”

Shortly after Brown retakes the beat, a police officer approaches. Bowdre looks up, stops, and grimaces. For a few minutes he protests (“come on,” he says, “I’m not out here begging”), but he soon relents.

Most of the onlookers have moved on, a few among them tossing in a dollar or some change as they pass. The bearded man with the red bandana approaches.

“Guy, you’re fuckin’ beasty,” the man says.

“I wasn’t even doing it loud,” Bowdre says. “I wasn’t goin’ in.”

“You can keep your time, though,” he says in admiration.

Bowdre lights a cigarette and exhales through his nose. After a brief chat, bandana man moves on.

Bowdre has the blessing of the Boston Park Rangers to play on the Boston Common, but the noise ordinance takes precedent. This time, a man in an apartment opposite the park called the cops to say he couldn’t sleep. Exasperated, Bowdre airs his frustration.

“We’re free to play in public areas, but when they say, ‘Oh, somebody called, somebody complained,’ – that guy don’t wanna come up in here and kick me out,’” Bowdre says. “That’s going to be every day.”

The outburst is brief and Bowdre soon calms. He’s been here all too often.

“That cop, he’s actually cool,” he continues. “He’s usually alright. He’s down here all the time.”

He weighs calling it a day or heading elsewhere — maybe Harvard Square — where noise restrictions are less oppressive. He decides instead on Faneuil Hall, where he first started playing as a kid more than two decades ago.

At 35, Bowdre is only two years older than Carter, but he’s the elder statesman of the city’s half-dozen or so bucket drummers.

Bowdre was a born percussionist. When he was growing up, his family would sometimes hold church at home: his mother played piano, his father harmonica and him, a bucket and a pair of spoons. At age 10, he started drumming by Faneuil Hall.

Bowdre recalls playing on boxes before getting his first buckets from a florist who has since left the marketplace. For want of drumsticks, he’d snap branches off a tree near what’s now an ArtsBoston kiosk. It was in Faneuil that he met drummer Larry Wright, who mostly plays in New York but occasionally comes to Boston. Through Wright he met Reggie Washington, a Newark, New Jersey man from whose style and setup he derived his own.

As Bowdre learned from Washington, he passed his education on to Carter, who has taught the art to others.

Despite their professional ties, things aren’t always rosy between the drummers. In Downtown Crossing’s heyday through the mid-2000s, there was plenty of space to go around, according to local busker’s advocate Stephen Baird, who since the 1970s has fought for buskers’ first amendment rights to perform here and elsewhere. But when Filene’s Basement closed in 2009, it signaled Downtown Crossing as all-but barren for the city’s performers — drummers included.

With the expansive Downtown Crossing off the list of viable locations, it’s easy for toes to get stepped on. That goes double for the drummers, who can quickly become redundant.

“If you keep us all in some place, somebody’s going to get paid less, because somebody’s already seen it,” Carter said. “You don’t go see the same movie twice. I mean, some people do, but I’m just saying.”

The drummers can and do set up in any well-trafficked public space, but the most lucrative are Faneuil, Fenway, and Harvard. The rules are simple: Spots are first-come, first-served, and don’t play within earshot of a fellow drummer. Sometimes a turf squabble becomes a feud, but mostly they keep to themselves.

Since their instrument lends itself to blending, the drummers adopt stylistic quirks to make themselves stand out.

Bowdre plays with his right shoe off, allowing him to control the pitch of his pan. It’s a trick he learned from Washington. If he presses tightly, the pan is muted; with his foot off, it rings. He also prides himself on his endurance, which allows him to play 30 or more minutes straight.

“My thing is, I like people to see me go in for awhile,” Bowdre says. “And then they say, ‘ah, let me give this guy some money,’ when they see how long I’m going, and how tough I’ve been going in. I can go home — I don’t have to be out here ‘til 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Carter admits he doesn’t have the talent Bowdre does, but says he makes up for it with his outgoing personality, and he and his cousin have become fan favorites. Another drummer has a set of differently sized pot lids he plays like a xylophone, incorporating riffs from popular songs into his beats.

It gets frustrating having to fight police and fellow performers for space, but despite the challenges, the bucket drummers get paid. They’re arguably the most popular street act in Boston, for which Carter credits the spectacle.

“Tourists —  this happens every year — walk up and [say], ‘Dude, I thought this was three guys on regular drums,’” Carter says. “It’s intriguing that we’re making this kind of music with what we’re making it with, the recycled percussion, the buckets.”

It’s an apt description, “recycled percussion,” as most pieces of the kit are salvaged from the scrapyard or the streets. Bowdre buys just his drumsticks and pans. The buckets he gets gratis from restaurants, the grates he salvages from old refrigerators.

“I’m going to have to start welding them or something, because they don’t make them like that anymore,” he says.

Because there’s no formal structure to bucket drumming like there is for most instruments, it’s hard to pinpoint its beginnings. According to Baird, it likely has roots in slave culture, when percussion was used to communicate. The accessibility led to its entering street performers’ repertoires at some point, most likely New York City in the 1980s.

“Most likely it started in New York, as a lot starts there, because it’s such a touristic city, and there are a lot of people performing in the streets,” said local performer Marcus Santos, who teaches bucket drumming at branches of the Boston Public Library. “That was the best I could find.”

Because they tend to have shared lineage, Carter says, performers in different cities share characteristics. Most in Boston have descended from Bowdre (and thus, Washington),so they use elaborate kits. In Chicago, Carter says, drummers use just one or two buckets. In New York, they’ll put their feet on their buckets to modify pitch.

It’s a low-overhead living, one whose portability and cash potential make it a fine vehicle for travel. When winter comes, Carter says, many northern drummers head south of the Mason-Dixon or to the West Coast. Otherwise they can travel on a whim, visit fellow performers, or follow the World Series or another event.

Carter has been up and down the East Coast, counting New York and Philadelphia among his favorite destinations. In Times Square, he says, he can clear a grand in two hours. Las Vegas has lately become a popular spot among street performers; Carter’s never been, but he hopes to hop a flight soon.

Bowdre used to travel often, but now he sticks to Boston. When he lived in Dorchester he could bounce about the city with ease. Now a family man living in New Bedford, he’s dependent on the bus. He mostly sticks to South Station or near the Red Line. He’s out most days, weather permitting.

Carter, of Dorchester, has a family too, but he hasn’t slowed down, nor does he plan to anytime soon. Once, Carter recalls, a man gave him a hard time by asking what he’ll do when he’s old, or when the money dries up. To the former, he doesn’t yet have an answer; to the latter, he doesn’t expect to need one.

“I would hate to be 60 doing this shit on the corner to be realistic,” he said. “(But) this shit will never get old, and it’ll always be paid.

“I told the guy, ‘What, you mean to ask me, [what will I do] when I’m too old to be doing this or it looks funny when I’m old, doing this?’ But I said, ‘This will never run dry.’”

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