On Drury Street, a Blues Singer with a Love of Mystery

“One of the things that destroys street performers, or anything, is to fixate,” says Bam Artist Artiste, as he likes to be known at the moment.

“So when they go to the same spot, day in, day out. What do you want? You don’t want people to say, ‘Arghh, it’s your man.’ You want people to say, ‘Ahaaa, it’s your man.’ You know?”

That’s why he does the day trips from his Galway base to Sligo, or Ennis, or Cork city. Or, if it’s Dublin, to Drury Street, near the entrance to the George’s Street Arcade, where he’ll wheel up his green bag, unravel a microphone wire, unpack the speaker that doubles as a seat, drop his head, and start to sing.

“Gonna meet you at the station, when the train come along . . . ”

“Gonna meet you at the station, when the train come along . . . ”

The heavy tap of his feet keeps a steady, straight rhythm. The repetitive lyrics echo the call and response of early blues.

It took him a while to settle on a genre of music that would make him stand out from other street performers, Bam Artist Artiste says. “I had to go back.” Back, in fact, to what he calls “work music”: songs that tell stories about day-to-day toil, and just getting on with it.

Bam Artist Artiste was born in Jamaica, he says, in a smallish village. So small in fact, that if you wanted to get laid, you had to go to the next village. “Everyone was a cousin!” he says, shaking with laughter.

Eventually, he moved with his family to Montego Bay, one of the biggest cities in Jamaica. He worked for a while as a civil engineer, he said. But that wasn’t the life for him.

“I gave up civil engineering so I can live like this,” he says. “I don’t like anything that tasks me, other than me.”

Living like “this” doesn’t just include singing. He also writes and paints and tries to spin his hobbies into a way of life, and a livelihood. He started singing because he was broke, he says. “That was my reason. Clear and simple.”

That desire to take control of his life seems to extend to his music. “I never get lost in anything. That’s not control to me,” he says. “If I’m in something, I brought myself there.”

Instead, he says he exists in the song. “If I’m singing a song about picking cotton, I’m a cotton-picker. If I’m singing a song about leaving my bitch, then I become a person who runs away from a woman. If I’m singing a song about Jesus” – he sings “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” and clicks his fingers – “then I’m a Christian,” he says.

He dresses sharp, in a black shirt and a brimmed hat. But he hasn’t always, he says. “I’ve been through many phases.”

The saggy-trousers phase. The dreads phase. The tight T-shirts phase. The Christian phase. The engineer phase. Trying on different lives to see how they fit. “Now,” he says, “I’m in the artist phase. Long may it last.”

It’s not just about having a slick look. There’s something sublimely practical about the dark colour scheme of blacks and almost-black blues. He gestures towards the white wall of the coffee shop we are sitting in, Clement & Pekoe, at an imaginary button.

“You know that thing on the washing machine that says put this colour in this, do this . . . I used to hate that. I wanted to eradicate that out of my life. So now, everything goes in, everything.” He draws that last “everything” out, into a satisfied growl of a word.

He won’t tell me the date he arrived in Ireland. Instead, he quotes himself.

“I wrote somewhere one time, ‘Never give the full truth. You should always keep something back. Always, keep the mystery alive,'” he says. “It deepens the mystery about yourself. People love mystery.”

Now, you might say that people are mysterious enough without adding another layer of enigma. Bam Artist Artiste does not agree.

“Ah, come on,” he says. “They could be a bit more mystery about us, I’d say, with all the social media and everything.”

It’s like fishing, he says. “The idea about the lure is to make the fish think something that isn’t real.”

“I don’t want the truth. A lot of truth, it’s ugly and nasty and . . . tell me a lie,” he says softly, then louder. “I want to hear a lie!”

“That’s what I mean. Somebody says, ‘Why don’t you watch slave movies?’ No. No. I want to watch beautiful stories. I don’t want to walk around looking at white people saying, I hate you. No man.”

But the stories he sings about cotton picking are hardly happy songs, are they?

There’s a pause.

“There’s a charm about it. And the charm is not just about the content of the story, it’s the delivery,” he says. “Because I have a fantastic voice, and I know this.”

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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pamela Kelly
at 11 August 2016 at 03:37

I met Bam in Ennis 2 weeks ago, I never heard of him before so I was really excited when I saw this article, as I would like to hear more of him, I told him he should come to Kerry as Puck fair was coming up and Rose of Tralee also Killarney is a good town to sing in, I would love to meet him again.

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