Are the Spinning Blowfish the World’s Best Busking Band?

Edinburgh, Scotland–based trio mixes drum, electric guitar, and bagpipes.

July 5, 2017 5:00 am
Are the Spinning Blowfish the World's Best Busking Band?
(Courtesy of the Spinning Blowfish/Stuart Knight)

Ah yes, the fabled power trio. Rock fans have been blessed with many throughout history: the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Police, Rush, and Nirvana, to name a few.

The power trio might as well be the typification of rock music—the genre in its purest form.

And while the dictionary definition usually includes a guitarist/lead vocalist, bassist, and drummer, many bands have broken the mold. (Take jazz artist the Bad Plus, who exploded onto the scene in 2003, with a cover of fellow power trio Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” except with a piano, upright bass, drums, and no vocals.)

But Edinburgh, Scotland’s the Spinning Blowfish have blown some life into the format—so to speak. And they are performing their unique live act completely free.

That’s why RCL has dubbed them the world’s best busking band.

The band features a quintessentially Scottish take on the power trio, with a set of bagpipes added as the lead “voice” against the backdrop of an electric guitar and drums. Featuring Milanese brothers Ram and Narayana Salafia on electric guitar and drums, respectively; and Scotsman David Spiers manning the pipes, the Spinning Blowfish play a style somewhere between rock and folk.

Spiers told RealClearLife over Skype that the band’s mildly hobbled by the fact that the bagpipes have a “limited scale” (i.e. just nine official notes). But that doesn’t slow them down at all. The band busts out everything from traditional, cèilidh-ready songs like “Scotland the Brave”; classical composers like Offenbach (i.e. “the can-can”); classic rock covers like Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here“; and even a Russian folk tune “Korobushka,” which is better known as the theme song for video game Tetris.

They perform their tunes while jumping around and jigging in time, and as Spiers often does, sprinting around the crowd and blaring his pipes like an ambulance siren. While Ram has boasted to live crowds that his bandmate can play the bagpipes while standing on his head, Spiers tells RCL that’s pure hyperbole. But Spiers does say this: “I was really proud of a couple years ago when I copied (The Who’s) Pete Townshend and did a scissor-kick while piping. It’s not easy.”

In regards to those “free” concerts—donations are always welcome, of course, and their self-made, five-track EP costs just £5—you can find the Spinning Blowfish pretty much every day during the summer months performing at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. “The spot (we play at) is called ‘The Mound,’” explains Spiers, a man-made hill that begins roughly at Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main shopping district. “Because it’s such a large, open square, you’re not immediately next to any residential properties, and also, you aren’t too close to any shops or traffic,” he continues, of the band’s chosen stage. “When you add on the fact that there’s space for people to sit down, that’s a massive bonus for what we do.”

It doesn’t hurt that the spot is prime territory for foreign tourists—especially in the summer, says Spiers—who flock to the area to shop, visit Edinburgh Castle, the National Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy, and the Museum of the Mound.

The band’s seen two lineups since its inception in 2010—when solo busker Spiers and the band’s first drummer, Javier, met one fateful day. The former, sporting a kilt and doing the stereotypical Scottish bagpiper show, was looking for a place to play, and all of the best ones were taken. “There’s a spot on the east end of Princes Street, opposite the Balmoral Hotel (where) there’s a statue of (The Duke of) Wellington on his horse,” Spiers remembers. He made his way to the statue, but alas, there was a drummer there, bashing away on his kit.

The drummer invited the Spiers to jam—and later, suggested a friend, Ram, to join on guitar. The band’s live show would be solidified in 2011. “When the three of us started playing together, the addition of the guitar really changed it, because we had just been two buskers, and as soon as you have an electric guitar, people really have the impression that you’re a band,” explains Spiers. Everything else sort of fell into place; people started asking them about their name, recorded music, and social handles—none of which they had in the beginning and now do. (Ram’s brother, Narayan, replaced Javier in 2014.)

While it might be easy to dismiss musicians like the Spinning Blowfish as glorified street-peddlers who play for loose change, Spiers tells RCL that he and his two bandmates are nicely compensated full-time musicians, who tackle busking as a summer gig.

Of course, a number of famous faces in the arts also started out as buskers, too, giving the profession yet more respect. Comedians Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard, British pop musician Passenger, and even James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, busked on the streets before their big breaks.

“If you’d asked me a few years ago, ‘Would you want to be busking as a living?,’ I would’ve thought, G-d no, I don’t want to just stand and play music in the street,” Spiers says.

He adds that was partially based on his own stereotypes of street musicians—that they were playing in the street because they’re not that talented. But that’s all changed since the Spinning Blowfish took off. “We really, really like our job,” says Spiers, “and if things turn out that this is what we keep doing for the foreseeable future, none of us are going to be unhappy about that.”

They have their sights set on playing future festivals, and even doing more serious gigs in venues. But as Spiers notes, “I think we would probably still turn up and busk, because the amazing thing about what we get to do is that almost 100 percent of the people listening to us on a given day have never heard us before and had no idea they were going to hear us when they left their house or hotel room that morning.”

That hasn’t kept the band from taking the occasional non-Mound gig. Spiers fondly remembers the Spinning Blowfish playing the Scottish Green Energy Awards at the National Museum (a black-tie affair), making their Australian television debut, and rocking an Indian family gathering called a Bandhan.

Technically speaking, the Spinning Blowfish actually will play one of the biggest festivals in the world in August. Annually, Edinburgh hosts the busking-centric Fringe Festival, which this year will feature over 50,000 performances all over the city—everything from music and dance to theater and cabaret. “We’ve got a few slots lined up; they’re basically called ‘finale shows,’ and incorporates what we normally do but is officially sanctioned by the festival,” says Spiers.

The Fringe runs from Aug. 4–28.

Now that RCL‘s proclaimed the Spinning Blowfish the “world’s best busker,” we wanted you to weigh in on our choice. Who’s the best busker in the world in your opinion? Tweet us your favorite busker picks @RealClearLife on Twitter or leave us some in the comments section on Facebook.

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