By: Dali Carmichael
Kent Aitken sits at one of the artfully painted tables at the front of Luneta’s Bistro, awaiting his turn to approach the open mic. The vibe of the small pub is jovial as the musicians wait to approach stage.
“I’m not much of a musician myself,” said Aitken, who’s been playing for about three years, but just started performing at open mic shows. “I’m just having fun. I figure the more I do it, the better I’ll get.”
He’s about to get a lot more time to practice.
Aitken was recently given a grant to bring the open mic style of music to the streets, in an experiment he calls “reverse busking.” The operation, called Musical Underground Ottawa, will start at the end of May or early June.
Aitken wants to offer passerby’s an opportunity to trade in their professional personas for one that is more laid back. He plans on setting up a guitar and encouraging people to play a song, be it an original or a cover. He will then capture the song on video and share the local talent online at www.musicalunderground.wordpress.com.
Aitken will set up on commuting routes including the Rideau Canal, Major’s Hill Park, Confederation Park, or the Byward Market once a week. He’s looking specifically for places where he can attract a lot of participants and record high-quality audio.
According to Aitken, there is a large community of skilled musicians in Ottawa, however due to the city’s somewhat conservative nature, they don’t often get to show their talents. He would know; when he isn’t playing music on street corners, Aitken works in the Canadian federal public service and studies environmental economics.
“I’m an unlikely person to be doing it,” said Aitken of his experiment. “I don’t see myself as a person who would play in a park for fun. I tend towards introversion.”
Aitken understands that performing in front of others for the first time can be nerve-racking, which is why he decided to sweeten the deal for participants. After receiving Awesome Foundation of Ottawa’s monthly $1,000 grant, Aitken was able to purchase a Seagull acoustic guitar, which will be raffled off at the end of the experiment.
“One of the things that we really like was that it’s not just a one-time event,” said Jesse Kaunisviita, an Awesome trustee. “We just think it’s really cool. It’ll engage musicians, non-musicians, people who like fooling around with a guitar but they’re not necessarily going to play a show you know, go to an open mic.”
Aitken acknowledges that he could conduct his reverse-busking experiment without the help of Awesome Ottawa, but he looks forward to giving away a “much more appealing prize” than what he would have been able to provide on his own. He also sees his experiment as a chance to give the Awesome Foundation some extra exposure.
Aitken is planning to host the reverse-busking for about a month, but it really depends on how many people participate. His ideal number of entries would be about 50, to give everyone who enters a fair shot at the guitar.
It’s important to Aitken that the raffle portion of the experiment is transparent. The final draw will be held at Frescos on Elgin Street at some point in June.
“It’s one of my favourites so far,” said Kaunisviita, who’s been an Awesome trustee for several years. “I’m really excited to see the end result, maybe put in a song of my own.”