Off the Scheme: A Weekend with London Modern Troubadours
Beside Buckingham Palace and the London Tower, forgetting Harrods’ and the 5 o’clock tea, lies a side of London glanced at by the tourists and forgotten by London’s busy commuters. It’s the crowd of London’s music makers, the buskers and street artists, the ones that made their way to London from various corners of the world to make it in the music industry. Some such as Ed Sheeran made it, while some gave up. Some stayed, kept making music, and created their own community outside of the music industry. A handful of the latter live in a sort of self-built paradise made of love, good vibes, organic teas, long hugs and lots of impromptu music. What they didn’t expect was that along with this bowl of awesomeness would come the uncertainty of their next meal, where to sleep, and little things like that. I followed four of them for a weekend, to understand what drives a person to get away from the “system”, as they call the rest of us, and live as modern-day troubadours.
In the Middle Ages, a troubadour was an itinerant writer and performer of songs and poetry, whose theme was courtly love. The theme might have slightly changed, but poetry was the result then and it’s the result now. Tunics they wore and (in some cases) wear now. They travel, that’s for sure. At least for now, their headquarter and busking stage is Camden Town, London’s iconic neighborhood, famous for its busy market and global cuisine.
Ny Oh (Naomi Ludlow) from New Zealand; Roaman (Riccardo Vitalone) from Italy; Sam Garrett from England; and Nate Maingard from South Africa all met at InSpiral, a tiny, vegan café on Camden High Street which later housed some of their first performances in London, and connected them with their first friends and most enthusiastic fans.
After sampling hugs that could cheer up a grieving widow and an organic vegan smoothie while strolling along Regent’s Canal, Roaman and Ny Oh show me the boat they live in with two other girls, Gabriela, Roaman’s partner, and Georgia. Regent’s Canal is approximately 14 km long, but the four keep the boat as close as possible to Camden Town, only 30 minutes’ walk away. Joggers, bikers and moms with strollers pass us by, and we pass several boats ourselves. Some are long and wide and look very comfortable. Roaman and Ny Oh explain their boat is not as well-equipped as others are, especially because they are all newcomers to the sailing life. The boat, as quaint as it is, doesn’t provide many commodities one would expect from a home.
No central heating (except for a tiny wood burner) or running water (but a water pump that could be turned on at times) which also meant no toilet or shower. Which raised the question: “But how?”
“Whatever comes,” says Roaman. “Sometimes at friend’s houses, gyms (paying 75 p a shower) or sneaking in during the busiest hour, shower and then leaving.”
London in November is just as you would expect it to be. Cold. Even if you could see your breath coming out of your mouth inside the boat and you might not be showering for three (or more) days in a row, life on the boat works out, at least for few months.
Before this, Roaman, Gabriela, Sam and others, joined a community of squatters at the Rochester Square Garden, a former green house turned in a livable place years before. Squatting means taking over a land or an empty house: squatting a criminal act or a cheap, alternative way of living, is irrelevant to this coverage. When Roaman tries to explain to me how the squat looks like, he says: “It’s a mix between a Jumanji scene (1995 adventure movie starring Robin Williams) and the cove of Peter Pan’s lost boys.”
Broken windows and an assortment of random objects, piled up during the years, blooming plants and unstable timbers, a couple of dogs and a cat walking around. Some people sleep outside in tents, some others in the garret, reachable through a steep ladder. Electricity is on, but I don’t ask where it comes from. I find out that the food is mostly donated by supermarkets that would, otherwise, throw it away. Everybody eats bundled up in their coats (the squat lacks insulation), and everybody seems, at least for the night, satisfied. I sip on an organic green tea I am offered, and the cold doesn’t bother me anymore. I realize that one needs to be driven by an intense passion to be able to pass on the lack of commodities this spartan life gives, and this is the reason.
If it’s on the boat or in the squat, surfing friends’ couches or living on the outskirts of town, the London modern troubadours all came to London for the same reason. To make music.
Ny Oh, Roaman, Sam Garrett and Nate Maingard’s music can be classified as “indie singers-songwriters”. Though their styles slightly differentiate from each other, they have a connecting line, visible in their contribution to each other’s songs at the sold-out concert at St Pancras Old Church on the Friday. The old church, paradoxically, makes a perfect stage, with its Christians frescoes, dim lights and bells that chime every hour. Approximately 200 people come.
Another singer-songwriter joins them on stage: it’s TPS aka Tom Price Stephens, recognizable for the massive beanie on his head, the bare feet and the intimate, vibrant voice. His song “Between the Lines,” whose heartfelt lyrics he delivers straight to my soul always leaving me wanting a reprise, is greeted with a round of applause. After Tom’s performance, Ny Oh takes the stage, with her kiwi’s accent and hilarious stories on the background on one of her most loved songs, “Bell Street and Paine” a street corner stage of her broken heart in Tauranga, New Zealand. Ny Oh is a ball of energy. The only female musician of the group of troubadours, her funky voice is not only captivating when performing solo, but also provides as a wonderful counter melody for other singers. Nate, Roaman and Sam ask her to sing with them, and her voice is featured in Roaman’s EP.
Following Ny Oh is Nate Maingard, the most charming of the 5 singers. His particular skill is the way he carries the crowd to sing along. As soon as he walks on stage, his guitar, Melody, falls and breaks. While everybody gasps, Nate calmly goes to the backstage and takes Ny Oh’s guitar, reassuring the audience. His presence of mind, his heart-stealer smile and deep blue eyes but mostly, his meaningful songs, make Nate Maingard a singer that I hope you’ll be able to hear in concert at least once in your life. After the concert, as the crowd leaves the church, the only song you can hear everybody mumbling is his “Always Wandering”. At this point I am already saturated with good music, but two other singers still have to take the stage. Next up is Sam Garrett. Sam is a character on his own. He lights incense before playing, and despite the winter, is wearing only a light brown tunic. He previously told me he has donated all of his other clothes. To keep him company on the stage, he brings the picture of Ramana Maharshi, a Hindi guru from the beginning of the 20th century. Sam’s songs are like a legal drug. They have the power of calming you down and making you smile, which is what the audience does as they sing along with his songs from his second EP “Namaste”.
Three hours into the concert, and the audience is more receptive than ever, ready to hear Roaman, the last singer of the night, perform.
Roaman’s songs can easily be a person’s life soundtracks. If you are in love with another person you could listen to his “We will Be Love” but if you need to love yourself and life a little more, you would dance at his “B Positive” which is what all the girls in the front rows do, despite the late hour. At that point, the concert is over, the throats are sore from too much singing, and I have finished the memory on my camera. What a great night.
At the end of this mini-festival of great music, a little of their backgrounds, and spending 24 hours in their lives, I feel like I know Ny Oh, Nate, Sam and Roaman a little better. I also find out I understand more of why one would take the boat, the squat, the hunger, the cold. At the end music it was drew them to London, and drives them to busk in the icy air today.
And all these things I feel, at the end of my weekend in London. I think it has got to do with all the hugs I have received in only 48 hours. As I am flying back to Rome on Sunday night, I am already thinking of my Monday, of the following month, the following paycheck, the upcoming holidays. Then, I remember their words as I asked them about their future plans: Sam’s plan is not having a plan, Roaman wants to travel and meet beautiful people, Nate wants to have a piece of land and grow a family connected with the nature, while Ny Oh starts off telling me about her EP in the making, but remembers that what will be will be.
I don’t know if these four musicians, and all those who live with them in the happy self-built paradise are naive or have truly found the key to happiness, yet I know that we are all entitled to find our own path and joy. If in looking for yours, you end up making great music, entertain people, have zero environmental impact, and spreading good vibes, then I approve this message. I am back in Rome, I have showered and warmed-up but all their music is downloaded and ready to keep me company in my hour long commute to work, stuck in the Roman traffic jam on Monday morning. Namaste, world.