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The city’s decision to relax its rules prohibiting street musicians from playing downtown is striking all the right notes for performers now enjoying a resurgence.

Just ask Michael Santos, 33, who spends most of his time living and working in the center of the city. His digs are at the Soap Works apartments, and he is one of the Amigos — the name for the crew that cleans the streets and River Walk.

Even Santos’ passion keeps him downtown.

Most nights, Santos can be found playing the bagpipes at a streetcar stop next to the Torch of Friendship.

Santos and his bagpipes have been a downtown fixture since 2001. He took a break in recent years because of the city ordinance curtailing street musicians from performing. But now Santos is back, along with other musicians, because of changes to those rules made earlier this year.

“It’s a great thing for the downtown area,” Santos said. “It’s not so dull anymore, not so much like a ghost town.”

In March, the city changed the statutes to allow for street performing, also known as busking. Now, noncommercial performance artists can take their talents to downtown’s sidewalks, parks and plazas. Some exceptions include the River Walk, Alamo Plaza and Main Plaza.

In reality, any performer using music — dancers, acrobats, comedians — are allowed to set up wherever they want, as long as they don’t disrupt the pedestrian flow.

“Street performing provides a public amenity that enhances the vibrancy, vitality and ambience of downtown San Antonio,” John Jacks, interim director of Center City Development & Operations, wrote in an email.

The loosened rules have certainly spurred that energy. They’ve provided a kind of career breakthrough for Remy Bones, who played his drums near the River Walk entrance at Commerce and Losoya streets during the summer.

Bones’ first night was the night of the Fiesta Flambeau parade in late April, when the lanes flooded with revelers. He was working for a pizza-delivery service at the time, and had $60 in his pocket for living expenses.

That night, in two hours, Bones made $120. Through the rest of spring and summer, Bones kept at it, and made close to $5,000 on street tips alone.

“I was nervous (at first) because I didn’t know if it was going to work,” said Bones, 28, who’s been playing drums since he was 6. He ended up quitting his job at the pizza place.

But the end of summer also meant the end of the foot traffic. Still, the exposure brought Bones an opportunity to work in a recording studio and learn the ropes. He also has aspirations to return to school to learn more about the music business. He may return to his corner when tourism kicks back up during the holidays, he said.

That’s when he’ll return to what he calls a free-for-all.

“From car accidents, little fender benders, to people being drunk falling over each other, to girls flashing — it’s a free-for-all out there,” Bones said.

For Alice Knight and her husband, Jack, playing in their band the Buskeroos, downtown is a chance to make a little gas money. The couple, who are in their 70s and play with son R.J. Loomis, operate an art studio in Terlingua near Big Bend National Park.

“One night, one man gave us a $20 bill,” Knight said. “You’re not hoping to support yourself, you’re just having some opportunity to have fun. Do I want to go to a bar and listen to someone else sing? No. Do I want to go to an open mic and wait to sing two songs? Or would I rather be out singing what I want to and have crowd reaction? Yes.”

There’s also the program called Houston Street Live, operated by Centro San Antonio, the nonprofit dedicated to improving downtown. It places performers of all kinds, not just musicians, at various spots along Houston Street to help draw more people to the corridor.

The program is on hold for now, but will return before the end of the year with new acts, said Eddie Romero, Centro’s director of marketing and events.

Santos, who has been performing on the streets for more than a decade, sees himself as sort of a torchbearer for this new crop of musicians. Though he never met George Coleman, aka “Bongo Joe,” Santos is aware of the street performer’s legendary status. Bongo Joe was a downtown fixture, delighting tourists and locals alike from the 1960s to the 1990s.

He died in 1999, two years before Santos started his performances.

“I guess I am that torch carrier,” Santos said.

2 comments on “Busking back in downtown SA

  • I love this article of my son Michael Santos doing what he loves for his passion playing the bagpipes. And yes he has been playing after he graduated from Burbank High School in 2002. The city ordinance didn’t allow no one to play in downtown. But as the years go by now is the good part that my son can play. He was also in the San Antonio Express&News back I believe n 2003 or 04. It was on Christmas Day. I want to thank Benjamin Olivio for doing this article on my son Michael Santos.

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