Ramblin’ Dan stands at one end of the Public Garden. Performing under a rainbow-colored umbrella while sitting on a bucket on a rotating stage, he wears a sort of top hat with bells and gongs and a harmonica and voice amplifier near his mouth.
He’s anchored to an outsized machine mushrooming with musical instruments and stuffed animals like lobsters, flamingos, snakes and Kermit the Frog. With one hand, he drums and strums a xylophone and ukulele. Sticks taped to the tips of his shoes strike at bongo drums and cymbals. The machine seems like something straight out of the Willy Wonka factory.
Its name? The Peace Wave Generator.
Keytar Bear—the famous busker in a bear suit who pops up at MBTA stations—was sidelined for most of the summer with an injury from a motorcycle accident, but that didn’t mean the street musician scene was empty. As the sun blazed across the city’s sky on one recent day, the performers fueled our smiles and carved out safe and fun spaces for people to enjoy together—no small feat these days. Taken as a whole, they are all our peace generators.
“I do what I do to make people feel good and smile,” Ramblin’ Dan says before tugging at strings attached to the machine like some puppet driven by a desire to penetrate the hard shell of adulthood. As someone who aims to bring joy to the world, he sees a bit of Robin Williams in himself. He stands and stomps his feet to emphasize his message of love: “It’s best to do what you can. Every little bit counts.” He then spins the stage around as if it were the center axis of the world, attracting all sorts of people.
“I also do it for the kids,” he says.
The traveling man from New Haven, Connecticut, studied botanical sciences in Wisconsin and Texas before his heart became ablaze with missions for peace when the U.S. began using Agent Orange in Vietnam. For many decades, Ramblin’ Dan has tried to combat hate with music, crossing the globe and playing songs from Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and other popular folk musicians.
People are his solar system. As they gather around him, he invites them to join the band.
“Let’s send out as many peace waves as possible,” he tells them, and they pick up instruments from a pile: tambourines, bells, rattles and hula hoops. They contribute to the sound, to the experiment of peace and to the power of his instrument inscripted with this note: “The machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Ramblin’ Dan. Photo courtesy of Ramblin’ Dan
“Music can transform your whole mood sometimes,” he says as children and families dance around him.
These peace waves seem apparent in Ramblin’ Dan’s face—one rippled after years of smiling. “Success for me means spreading joy, vibes, happiness in the world. Doing things that you believe in.”
He performs for hours as passers-by stop, take photos with him and then move on. But not before they hear him utter wisdom from Einstein: “ ‘Only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.’ ”
In another part of town, on an artery along Faneuil Hall, where Quincy Market is most clotted with tourists, there’s a woman in a bulbous, purple-pink outfit that swells in the wind like a jellyfish. Her stage name is Violin Viiv, or Vivian Luo from Sunnyvale, California. Attracting a large crowd, she stands as straight as an exclamation point, and her music is equally as emphatic.
Her movements are fierce as she cuts and slashes her violin until the horsehairs of her bow are frayed. But that doesn’t stop her. She dances in metallic-gold sandals, hopping and trotting over the red-brick road like it’s burning hot embers sparked from her own performance. For two hours, she tassels with the spirit of music—pop, Latin, Disney—enticing people to come closer. They toss her money.
“Music fuels the soul and can make a direct impact on someone’s day,” she says.
The sun beats down on people, but it seems like no hindrance to Violin Viiv. “Music can heal, inspire, move, conquer. It’s a release, a freedom of some sorts,” she says. Her exertions strain parts of her body, and you can almost imagine that her bow is made of one of her own ribs—music seems that integral to her being.
Her inspirations: passion, nature, kids, common humanity. “Anything and everything can be inspiring. You just have to look hard enough and take time to learn every story,” she says. It seems that Violin Viiv puts that into practice when she performs. Her eyes lock onto people and she acknowledges them with a nod and big smile. To her, success means “feeling fulfilled by living out a life with meaning, purpose and friendships.”
We depart on these words from Dr. Seuss: “ ‘Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!’ ”
On another corner in Boston is a man with a tenor saxophone—an instrument that resembles a metallic seahorse oxidized by the touch of his sweat. That man’s name is Jonte Samuel, a native of the Virgin Islands, who—unlike his wood-sculpting father—crafts musical beats. He regularly performs near Park Street, where tourists and historical Quaker guides gather and take notice of his cardboard sign with pictures of world flags.
“Where are you from?” Jonte asks passers-by.
They answer him: Belgium, Scotland, Colombia, Senegal and South Africa. He sometimes then stands and salutes them by playing their national anthems. Jonte transports the crowd, dialing the hot keys of the sax like they were coordinates on a map. All aboard: Now departing from Park Street.
The people listen. Some stand at attention. Others sing in their native tongue. And still others proudly wave fists into the air. They’re surprised at the number of anthems he knows.
“One hundred-seventy,” he says. And still learning. “But I like playing music from smaller, lesser-known countries that people often forget about.” He tries to spark a sense of pride and community in people. Soon, people tip him and he sits back down.
“I learned music to meet people,” he says before taking a swig from his 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup. “You know, immigrants are some of the most patriotic people.” He wipes the sweat from his face. “I love all people,” he says. To another pair of passing visitors, he asks: “Where are you from?” They answer South Korea. He stands and repeats the cycle.
“I want to bring a bit of people’s culture to them,” he says. “For people who miss home or who can’t return home.”
The day ends with a Facebook chat with Keytar Bear, the mascot with the flashy, furry fingers whose favorite quote is, “Cold eggs are better than no eggs.” Although he’s still recovering from his injury, Keytar Bear—who hails from Sutton—says music “reminds people of a good time in their life. Music is an expression of love.” While he defines success as putting a smile on anyone’s face, he hopes to be remembered as someone “you either loved or hated.” As for when he will make his return to the streets of Boston: “I never say when or where.”
Till then, there’s still plenty of music—and joy—to go around. ■