When we see buskers on our streets, we just vaguely notice them strumming and singing a tune as we walk by—it’s sad but it’s true.
Only now and then do exceptional acts cut through the noise, and mesmerise a crowd to gather round and appreciate their music.
While most who achieve this are usually found along the bustling, fashionable Orchard Road, one band of buskers has made themselves revered among the quieter heartlands of Singapore.
Befitting with this, they call themselves ‘The ETC’ (or ‘闲杂人等’ in Mandarin) as they believe they’re just ordinary people sharing the joy of music with others.
I visited the trio on a wet Friday evening when they performed outside Heartland Mall at Kovan.
After singing tirelessly from 7.30pm to 10.30pm, they packed their instruments as shops drew their shutters, and said with bright smiles, “It’s alright, we aren’t tired!”
Gathering The Crowds
The ETC once had a different set of members, but from 2016 till today, the band consists of Tang Yuxuan, 47, Tristan Ong, 42, and Joey Wee, 43.
Instead of the latest chart-topping hits, they’re known for performing a variety of classic Mandarin, Cantonese, and English songs.
Tristan says they initially started busking in town, thinking it was the best location for high traffic, only to realise that their style was more suited to the heartlands.
During their busking session in Kovan that night, the elderly, families with children, and even some teenagers made up their audience.
Some stayed seated at the nearby hawker centre listening for hours, all the way till the band sang their last song, of about 45 songs that night.
The trio believe it’s their passion that keeps people coming back.
We sing from our hearts. Singing is like telling a story—when we sing, we interpret the songs and share our meaning and feelings with the audience.
Growing Into Music
Many passions start brewing from childhood, and that was true for Yuxuan and Joey, who have loved singing since they were kids.
However, obstacles sometimes stand in the way of diving headfirst into your dreams.
“I studied accounts and worked as an accounts clerk for 2 years, then as spastic children’s teacher for 9 years,” says Yuxuan, who is now a vocal instructor.
Joey, a Singapore PR from Kuching, grew up surrounded by music, going for singing competitions and performing at restaurants at a young age.
Despite her early involvement in music, she’s the only member of the band whose current full-time job is in an unrelated industry, freight forwarding.
Tristan was the exception among the group, who realised his interest in music only in his twenties.
“When I was young, maybe I wasn’t so nurtured to find out my interests. So I just followed other kids and studied, studied, and studied,” he says.
After working in the IT field for about 6 years, Tristan decided to take up singing as a hobby, and discovered he had an even deeper passion for composing.
This pushed him to take up the keyboard and work harder on his vocal skills so that he could play and sing his own arrangements.
In the middle of my career, I thought of just trying it out, to ‘dump’ myself into music for 3 months. But eventually, I continued until now, for more than 5 years.
Now, each member of The ETC has rich experience in the world of music.
Yuxuan has sung backup for artistes like Andy Lau, Kit Chan and Stephanie Sun, while Tristan, who now teaches singing and keyboard, has composed songs for Joi Chua (蔡淳佳) and Jeff Wang (王建復).
Joey was the champion of singing competition, ’90an Gerek’ on Mediacorp’s Suria TV channel, and has also released her own covers album.
Hustling On The Streets
They became friends through music, with Tristan attending vocal lessons together with Joey, and even taking lessons from Yuxuan at one point.
“Every year we try something new. We tried recording, we tried many things, but one year we thought, ‘Eh? We haven’t tried busking before!'” Tristan says.
People started noticing them as they busked, and began hiring The ETC to perform at restaurants, weddings, nightclubs, and even in the staff lounge of the Marina Bay Sands Casino.
However, these achievements didn’t come without their challenges, and the toughest one was finding locations to busk at.
It’s common knowledge that you need a license to busk in Singapore.
But what most people don’t know is that buskers with a license can only choose 5 locations from an approved list.
The ETC struggled for some time with poor locations before finding those that suited them—they had to factor in the peak timings at each venue, whether the audience had time to stop, and whether there was shelter from the rain.
In fact, they were originally supposed to perform at Punggol Plaza the night we met, but had to switch locations due to wet weather.
Tired of restrictions, the band eventually realised that busking at non-approved locations was a risk they could take.
They stay out of trouble as long as they don’t perform too near to residential areas, where residents are likely to complain about their volume at night.
Will Music Fill Your Bowl In Singapore?
Even when they are well received by a crowd of listeners, it doesn’t always translate into a good income.
I asked Yuxuan why I no longer find them in my neighbourhood, Hougang, where I had first seen them performing for an adoring audience nearly 2 years ago.
It surprised me when she said, “We realised we couldn’t make much there, even though many people came. So we had to try other places.”
With their experience in music beyond busking, the band members say the industry in Singapore is very narrow.
Tristan has felt that music is a path for the young and rich in Singapore, who can spend on producing and recording without financial concerns.
“I guess there is no age limit [to pursue music], but I do feel that there is, and I have already passed it,” he says.
Additionally, a good voice isn’t always good enough to make a musician stand out.
“In these recent 10 years, I see a difference, especially for girls,” Joey says. “They need to know how to dance, play instruments, compose, sing—it’s about the whole packaging.”
If Music Be The Food Of Love
Especially for Joey, who works full time and sings with the band till late, busking is a physically taxing challenge.
“I only can learn and practise new songs at night time on weekdays, but I still take up the challenge because passion keeps me going,” she says.
Joey had once been invited to sing at a remembrance event for bereaved family members of hospice patients who passed away.
She tells us that it was one of the most impactful memories of her music career, as it showed her how music has an ability to comfort the soul.
“When we began to sing, the atmosphere changed as people started to release their emotions and tears,” she says.
I felt that music could really break down the distance between people and pull them close together.
The ETC has also had heartwarming encounters with fans, who regularly keep track of their Facebook activity so they know where to catch the band performing.
“We have met several occasions where police come down to check on us when we busk,” Tristan says.
“Once they left and we started to perform, our audience clapped and cheered very loudly, to let the police hear and know that we were welcome there.”
It’s moments like those that remind the band they’re bringing happiness to the community through their music.
To find out where their next busking session will be, follow their Facebook page here!
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post