Busking with Rodrigo Y Gabriela

(Image credit: Andrew Wilson ./Retna Ltd./Corbis)

ACOUSTIC EXPO 2014: The plan sounded simple enough. All we had to do was get to Camden Town, London, meet up with Mexican acoustic duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela, see how much money they could make during an hour-long busking session and try not to get them arrested.

This, we reasoned from the comfort of the office, should present no real problem. After all, Rodrigo Y Gabriela started off as buskers. Performing their fiery hybrid of flamenco and metal on street corners was how they paid the bills as they travelled across Europe in search of stardom. This should be a walk in the park for them...

It's not until we arrive at the meeting point that our plans start going tits up. Aside from the fact that they've forgotten their guitars and busking amps (it takes a frantic trolley-dash around Camden's guitar shops to rectify this), Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero are cold, jet-lagged, and making enough money from their latest album (Rodrigo Y Gabriela) not to need the loose change of the British public.

So, it is with a metaphorical cattle prod that TG forces the weary guitarists out into the wind-lashed streets of North London…


Cash: £0.00

With the air of a man who'd rather be anywhere else on earth, Rodrigo turns up his collar and marches up Camden High Street in search of a location. Ever chivalrous, TG offers to carry Gabriela's guitar case and waves a Dictaphone under her nose as we pick our way through the pigeon shit.

"We've busked before," she confirms. "When we first arrived in Europe we used to busk in the centre of Dublin. Just one week after we came to Dublin we ran out of money because we'd made a mistake and been ripped off by some music agency. We had to busk to survive.

"What did we do with the money? We were just fucking drinking and having a good time with it. But we won't spend the money on pints this time. We'll give it to Oxfam."


Cash: £0.00

For reasons best known to their tour manager, we come to a halt in a deserted corner of Camden Market. The proprietor of a lone noodle van eyes us suspiciously. It's all proving too much for Rodrigo, who is starting to question TG's motives.

"This is not real," he snorts, arms crossed over his chest, moustache bristling. "This is not a real busking situation. There aren't enough people here. We need to move to a busier street."

Man, this guitar case is starting to get heavy...


Cash: £0.00

We're back outside the pub where we started. It's not ideal - the Buck's Head is next to a shop selling leather trousers and pumping out deafening drum 'n' bass - but TG is growing edgy at the prospect of returning to HQ having done little more than walk around Camden Market.

Rodrigo still isn't chomping at the bit ("It'd be better to do this in the summer"), but he eventually squats down on his diminutive Pignose amp and starts tuning up. Perhaps because she got more sleep last night, Gabriela is more enthusiastic.

"My fingers are fucking freezing," she admits, "but it was five degrees below zero when we busked in Denmark."


Cash: £3.10

At last, we're ready. As Gabriela breaks into a fast percussive rhythm on the muted strings of her acoustic guitar, a disparate group of alcoholics, bohemians and people carrying signs saying 'Golf Sale - This Way!' gather around the duo like moths to a flame.

At the risk of sounding patronising, it strikes us that most people who aren't at work in the middle of a weekday afternoon probably don't have money to burn, so we order the duo's manager and press officer to empty their pockets and set the ball rolling. Between us, we manage just over £3.


Cash: £8.45

Rodrigo's frozen fingers have now thawed and they're approaching warp-speed as he lays a dazzling flamenco solo over Viking Man.

You couldn't quite call it a 'mob', but the number of onlookers - apparently surprised to hear street musicians whose repertoire extends beyond The Kinks' Sunny Afternoon - is fast approaching 'throng' status.

The loose change is raining down, and a cursory glance into the case reveals that Rodrigo and Gabriela have already made enough to cover their travel expenses.


Cash: £22.00

The management visibly stiffen as a police siren wails in the distance. They're right to be worried because we don't have a licence to be here, and we're aware what they would do to a mag like us inside.

To their credit, Rodrigo and Gabriela don't seem to be phased by the prospect of a stretch in Wormwood Scrubs. They launch into a cover of Metallica's Orion while we offer a silent prayer that the local constabulary are keen on Latin-infused reworkings of thrash metal hits.


Cash: £41.26

To the delight of the crowd, Rodrigo introduces Tamacún with a series of handslaps on his guitar before throwing in a snatch of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

A moment later they have a crack at Stairway To Heaven, then decide against it. "I think the cold is getting to their fingers," grimaces the manager, "and the intro is too delicate."

No matter, the duo's own Satori brings the total up to just over £40 and TG has to scoop out some of the money so it doesn't look like they're doing too well.


Cash: £52.68

There's a man in a yellow council jacket making his way across the road, but Rodrigo pulls the plug before the jobsworth has a chance to. Handing us the takings in a large paper bag, Rodrigo and Gabriela jump into a waiting Transit and scream off towards their next appointment in King's Cross.

As the crowd go back to their usual routine of shuffling and shouting, TG retreats to a Burger King where we calculate the hour's takings to be a respectable £52.68 (plus one long black hair). And before you ask, we gave it all to charity.