The Stanley Street singers
Love them or love them not, Fusion Vocal Group is as much a part of PE’s well-known Stanley Street* as the long-standing restaurants and bars. This band of musicians has been ‘busking’ in establishments and on the streets of Richmond Hill for nearly ten years, and around other parts of Nelson Mandela Bay for much longer than that.
Nearly every Monday to Saturday afternoon, Eugene Moen, Ricardo Goliath, and brothers David and Peter Snayer head all the way from the Gelvandale area to Rink Street by bus (or a very expensive taxi trip). From Central, it is a skip and a hop to one of Port Elizabeth’s most popular eat-out zones, Stanley Street.
They throw on their Cape Carnival-style attire over their other clothes and hit the restaurants; some managers are happy to see them, others will not allow them through the doors.
“And that’s just the way it goes,” says Eugene, the unwitting but obvious leader of the group.
“For 18 years, we have done the same work. Here on Stanley Street, the waiters, managers and even some of the restaurants come and go. But we are always here.”
“There are restaurants in this strip that display pictures of musicians on their walls, and yet they don’t let us in. Sometimes even the customers call us inside but we have to respect the wishes of the owners,” Eugene explains.
Fusion Vocal Group has a broad repertoire of tunes ranging from the Bee Gees and The Temptations to Afrikaans and Xhosa folk songs.
“We check out the crowd first and see if there are any birthdays or special occasions,” says Ricardo.
“We love to perform Cape Carnival style but know that not everyone likes that kind of music. We sing what the people want us to sing. Some even ask us to go and practise a particular song for the next time they see us, and we do.”
On a good night, the group can make up to R1 000. On a quiet night, it will be less than a fifth of that amount. Peter says it can be very disheartening to go home almost empty-handed at the end of a night.
“People do it all over the world. It can be frustrating though when we don’t make much in an evening.”
Peter adds that the positive reactions outweigh the negative experiences, especially when it comes to overseas visitors.
“One night, there was a group from Australia. I will never forget them. They just cried the whole time. They cried for the happy songs and they cried during the sad songs, even the funny songs. We found out they had immigrated to Australia, and they were so happy to be back,” he says with a smile.
He also says the guys are realistic about their situation, and want to improve it.
“At first, the reception in Stanley Street was so good because we brought something so unique to the PE audience, but now, maybe we come here too frequently,” he says.
When asked to perform at corporate events or weddings, the group jumps at the opportunity. They have been to Cape St Francis, George and Oudtshoorn to busk at the various festivals, sometimes hitchhiking the whole way.
Just last month, a woman named Francis arranged for the group to travel to Prince Albert, a small Karoo town popular among tourists.
“It was a fantastic experience and we are so grateful. The people who were there were very connected. They requested to all kinds of music, even Brenda Fassie**,” David says.
Omar Faried Fredericks met the group of singers when he was working at a street-food stall while the Gelvandale Sports track was being renovated in 2010.
“I asked them to play me a song and they did. They were so good! I wanted to learn to play the guitar too. I asked Eugene to come and see me and over the last eight years, I have learned to play the guitar quite well thanks to him. Ricardo has also become quite a talented player,” he says.
Omar Faried, who works for the municipality, also gave Fusion Vocal Group the guitar they are using currently.
“These guys are my friends first, but they have got so much talent. They have taught themselves to play and perform. They have highs and lows; exciting gigs and then quiet times,” he says.
“But oh my, whatever you think when you first see them, the minute they start to sing, it is a whole different story. Put them in a crowd and they will entertain those people for the whole night.”
While the group performs on the street on a breezy Wednesday evening, a woman walks past with her dog and says, “Man, you guys need a manager and you’d go far. You are so entertaining.”
Some of the car guards dance along to the music, and look after the group’s backpacks. Cars rush by, but the men sing on.
A police vehicle drives past and the driver gives a thumb-up through the open window. A man with a beard who apparently works at a music shop close by shouts greetings from his window. Eugene says he sometimes strings the group’s guitar for free.
Love them, love them not.
*Stanley Street runs through the heart of Richmond Hill, one of Port Elizabeth’s oldest suburbs. It is certainly the place to go for a diverse taste of South Africa’s friendly, windy city.
** Brenda Fassie was a South African anti-apartheid Afropop singer. She was affectionately called MaBrrr by her fans, and was sometimes described as the "Queen of African Pop".