The Gift: Street paper vendors from around the world on their favorite songs and what they mean to them
Edited by Tony Inglis
The International Network of Street Papers
Each year, the International Network of Street Papers puts together a feature for this festive holiday season that focuses on vendors from around the world. Too often, street paper vendors are reduced to the problems they face. While it’s important to confront the issues vulnerable people deal with daily, sometimes we can miss the little things that make us all — homeless or not — who we are.
So, this year we asked something a little different of vendors: if you could give a song as a present this Christmas, what would you choose? As was to be expected, the list is as diverse and eclectic as #ourvendors. This is a small selection from the resulting feature, which included contributions from almost 100 vendors, from 38 street papers, across 22 countries.
A Spotify playlist from the project can be listened to here: https://tinyurl.com/2018-vendor-playlist
Street Sense Media
Four of our vendors talked about some of the songs that stir their emotions.
Marcus McCall (29) on ‘Close to You’ by Dreezy, featuring T-Pain: “I only heard the song for the first time recently- my cousin played it for me when I was visiting him – and I like the beat, basically everything about it. It aims toward love, connection, family, and trying to get close and to know somebody.”
Laticia Brock (37) on The Temptations’ version of Christmas classic ‘Silent Night’: “It was something my family did every year. We’d sit around and take turns singing different parts of the song. It makes me think of family. I remember that even when we didn’t always have food to eat, my mother always managed to cook a Christmas dinner.”
Reginald Denny (54) on gospel singer Wintley Phipps’ ‘I Believe’: “This song is inspirational. It means a lot to me for two reasons: I met the singer, and it was sung at one of the inauguration events for Barack Obama.”
Chon Gotti (55) on Grammy nominated singer Jeffrey Osborne’s ‘Concentrate on You’: “This was the first song that ever made me cry. I’ll never forget it – it’s a song very dear to my heart.” [Fun fact: Chon’s aunt was married to Osborne’s brother].
Hus Forbi vendor Jette went bankrupt and left everything behind after as a result of a violent relationship. Now she, and many of her friends, are homeless and street paper vendors. In the summer, they go to marketplaces around Denmark. She used to be a teacher, and plays piano and accordion. She mentions two favourite pieces of music. “‘Tango Jalousie’, by the Danish composer Jacob Gade, is a wonderful piece of music to play on the piano,” she says. “Another is ‘Barcelona’, as performed by Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and opera singer Montserrat Caballé. It is just a beautiful song, and they perform it perfectly.”
Ion and Mariana Vasi are husband and wife. They came to Denmark to work in the service sector, while their families in Romania take care of their children. Mariana was blighted by a life-changing illness and they lost their jobs. Now they live in an old car and have been the selling Hus Forbi as their primary source of income in Aarhus. They are both descended from musicians. Mariana is a good singer and Ion plays accordion brilliantly. However, they sense Danes do not like street musicians, so they prefer to be vendors. “If not for music I could not live,” Ion says. “My favourite piece of music is ‘La Paloma’ (or ‘No More’, as performed by Elvis Presley). I love to play it. Music is an international language – it is everybody’s mother tongue.” Maria used to sing at weddings as a child. She still sings while Ion plays the accordion. Her favourite song is ‘Besame mucho’ by Diana Krall.
Ravn became homeless as 17-year-old and has been on and off the streets ever since. Ravn’s guitar is the ultimate street guitar. Ravn was travelling in Spain with his partner, Andy. They got the guitar from a man on the street. Then Andy decorated the guitar. ‘’We are all eternal children. As an adult, you get stuck, and you just have to be in a certain way. I’ve played the guitar since I was 13. I played the guitar with my left hand but changed to the right.” When asked what music means to him, Ravn says: “It means therapy – play without boundaries and creativity. My favourite artist is David Bowie. Right now, it’s ‘Fill Your Heart’ from the album Hunky Dory, which I like best.”
Four Street Roots vendors in Portland, Oregon got in on the fun with their song choices.
Daniel Cox (52) on Social Distortion’s ‘The Story of my Life’: “I can relate to it. Especially the verse ‘I went downtown to look for a job, I looked at the holes in my jeans and turned and headed back’. Also, it talks about change. Things change in time; we hope they don’t but they always do.”
Eric Sweger (53) on Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini’s ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’: “This is a sad song, but if you don’t know Italian, it actually sounds cheerful. It reminds me of the sun coming up. But if you know the story, it’s contradictory. I like opera, once I heard it, it stuck in my head. I first heard it 30 years ago.”
Aileen McPherson (44) on S.J. Tucker’s folky ‘Cheshire Kitten’: “I can see my life in this song; parts of it at least, but maybe the whole thing. I can relate to it all. We’re all mad here and it’s OK. One of my favourite parts is the chorus: ‘You gotta go down the rabbit hole and out the other side, you can’t go home in the middle of the magic carpet ride’.”
Charles McPherson (34) on ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from the musical Les Misérables: “I grew up listening to Les Mis. I watched the 10-year anniversary performance every day when I was in middle school while I did my homework. The lyrics and music are beautiful.”
Three vendors of the street paper L’Itinéraire, sold in Montréal, spoke about songs that mean something to them.
Sylvain Pépin on John Lennon’s festive classic ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’: “ That’s the song I’ve been listening to every Christmas for many years now. I like the lyrics and the mood of the song. It really touches me. We listen to it at family reunions during the holidays and it makes us reflect on those family members who are no longer with us. It’s a song that brings us all together. It helps us forget the less happy times over the course of the year. Even if there are covers of this by other singers, I think the original version is the best.”
Manon Fortier on Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Suzy Snowflake’: “I love to laugh, and I have a good sense of humour. This song represents my personality well. My mother listened to Rosemary Clooney a lot. My mom knew and frequented a lot of artists. If she were still alive today, I know that she would have initiated me to music when I was younger by giving me access to music lessons. I’ve always loved music and I would love to become a singer. I even had the chance to sing on stage and I particularly appreciate country and western music.”
Christine Viens on composer Johann Pachelbel ‘Canon in D’: “I would offer this song as a gift at this time of year. When I was in my high school band, we performed this piece at a Christmas concert under the wonderful direction of our music teacher and conductor, Mr. Peter Wright. To Peter, Happy holidays and a Happy New Year to you. Thank you for everything you did for all of us, as well as for me, back then and always still. With this memory in my heart and in the spirit of the holiday season, I offer this song to all of my colleagues, friends and my family. Happy holidays to one and all. I hope that 2019 brings you health, happiness, good fortune, luck, love, peace and joy.”
One L’Itinéraire vendor, Siou, is offering up his own work as a gift this Christmas. The track, entitled ‘Les passants’, or ‘The passers by’, has lyrics written by Siou, which were then put to music by Montréal artist Paul Cargnello and interpreted by professional singer Karine Pion. The song is on an album compiling a dozen songs by Siou and Cargnello called Intense Cité. “When I take the time to create a gift that I will offer someone, it has a lot more importance and a greater value,” says Siou. “That’s why I offer to you this simple song that says a lot. When I finished writing the lyrics, I felt a great deal of pride. This song is part of a long process of personal growth. It started with my introspection as a vendor for L’Itinéraire which went on to enable me to touch a universal chord. In the song, you will find a critique of society. It’s my way of describing how I see and feel about marginalization in relation to society.”
The work of tenor vocalist José José, specifically his performance of ‘Lo Pasado, Pasado’, meaning ‘What is Past, is Past’, is the object of Erasmo Navarrete’s affections. The 65-year-old sells Mexican street paper Mi Valedor at the Hotel Krystal, in Reforma in Mexico City. He believes the song has played a large part in forming his life story: “I first came across José José when I was 16 years old. He’s an alcoholic, just like me, and I’ve had a drink with him in a few bars. Who would have thought that later on, I would drink to his songs?
“Despite the fact that alcoholism led me to many low points, even hitting rock bottom, it also brought me happiness as I got to know many people and made friends in different places.
“José José is, for me, an example that, although someone may be an alcoholic, they have to be able to enjoy life, just like someone who has next to nothing.
“I didn’t expect anything good would happen in my life, but then someone spoke to me about Mi Valedor and now, as the song says: I am now a new person.”
One Step Away
Those who sell One Step Away on the streets of Philadelphia are a microcosm of the entire street paper network’s contribution to this playlist – diverse, coming from a range of backgrounds, and with a varied musical taste. Here, they talk about their song choices.
Edward Johnson (42) on ‘Work’ by rapper Meek Mill, who was recently released after being sentenced to two to four years in prison for a parole violation, a decision that met with outcries of an injustice and support from throughout the music community: “I choose this song because it’s inspiring. Especially when I’m about to go to work, I put it right on. It’s my hype song.”
Sylvia Williams (57) on ‘Just Like You’ by Keyshia Cole: “I choose this song because it talks about growing and moving up in life. And you need some stepping stones, and you also need strength, courage, and faith. That’s what it talks about, needing strength to rise above, and God. Without God I would still be in the dark.
“The song teaches me not to be stagnant, and it teaches me to keep moving and pushing. It gives you a purpose in life – that’s what it means to me.
“The song is significant to me because I know when I was using, I couldn’t look in the mirror. The song talks about you looking into the mirror and finding out who you are and what you are in life. Now I can look in the mirror since I’m not using anymore – because I used to run past the mirror, back and forth, back and forth – I couldn’t look in it, because I looked like a hot mess. But now that I look good and feel good – spiritually, physically, and mentally – that song helps me to grow.”
Neal McLaurin (39) on the acapella version of ‘If I Ever Fall in Love’ by 90s RnB quartet Shai: “When I first heard this in the seventh grade I just fell in love – I got butterflies, because there was the young lady I kind of liked and it reminded me of her. It makes me feel joyous and pure. It reminds me of when I was young. This was when I started my first signing group. I heard some guys in the hallway at school and I fell in love with singing.”
Slobodan Mkrojevic (60) on The Doors’ psychedelic masterpiece ‘The End’, famously featured in the movie Apocalypse Now: “I was very young, maybe 18, and everyone started listening to The Doors. Jim Morrison – I find everything about him interesting. It makes you think about what’s to come.”
Maria James on the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway duet ‘Where is the Love’: “It reminds me of people, and when I don’t think people are showing enough love I think of that song. It sends a message of ways people should share love and what people think of when they think of love and why there isn’t enough love.”
Irini Ampeliotou, 48, sells Shedia all over Athens. She has experienced some hard times, including a stint in prison. Because of this, she relates to the Greek singer-songwriter Dionysis Savopoulos, who was imprisoned during the Greek military junta of 1967 to 1974. “It refers to the feelings of a prisoner and, for this reason, I have a very strong emotional response when I hear it,” says Irini of Savopoulos’ song ‘Dimosthenous leksis’hich refers to a eulogy in ancient Greece. “It is describing a situation which is experiential for me. Being in prison, more than once, is something that I will never forget.”
Her colleague Magda Vasilikou, 64, connects with the traditional Greek folk tune ‘Se agapo giati eisai oraia’, meaning ‘I love you because you are beautiful’, as performed by Alkistis Protopsalti. “It fills my soul with love,” she says. “It reminds me of my mother when I was a kid. She used to stroke my hair and sing this song.”
Alberto Ferro, 63, sells Factor S outside the University of Sociology in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. ‘Muchacha (Ojos de Papel)’, or ‘Girl (Paper Eyes)’, by Argentine singer Luis Alberto Spinetta, doesn’t necessarily hold much special meaning to Alberto, “it’s just that the lyrics speak to me. I like what he says, and how he says it, this story of a man telling the one he loves not to leave, but to stay and be looked after.”
Brixen is a town in northern Italy, close to the border with Austria. There, 25-year-old Happy Eweroe sells the street paper Zebra. Originally hailing from Nigeria, his favourite song comes from the gospel tradition. Nathaniel Bassey’s ‘I Believe in You’, Happy says, “helps me to find relief in the moments of stress and pain that I am facing in my life. When I am worried and sad, it gives me the strength to go on.”
Courtesy of INSP.ngo Special thanks to those who translated for this feature: Patricia Pereira, Melanie Vogt, Kathryn Ness, Louise Thomas, Cedric Horbach, Jessica Michaels, Hollie Davies, Jessica Gert, Sean Morris, Ute Kahle.