When walking through the pedestrian streets in Brussels, various melodies find their way to your ears. Chances are the name José Luis Picuasi Torres doesn’t sound familiar. However, when you’ve strolled through Brussels on a nonrainy day, you have likely seen a man playing the pan flute, the guitar, and heaps of other instruments while stuffed llamas and some colorful dancing dolls keep him company. Buskers are everywhere in Brussels and hence is marvelous music. José is (not just) one of them.
The gift that keeps on giving
Only minutes after he starts playing, a large crowd of both young and old, tourists and locals has gathered in half a circle around him. When crossing paths with José in Brussels, one must look at least twice to fully figure out what exactly is going on and how all of these various sounds can come from one and the same person. Just when you thought you had spotted all the instruments he’s playing, he’ll surprise you with some more, mounted literally anywhere on his body.
With both hands, he plays the guitar, interspersed with some ‘charango’ from time to time. This Naples yellow instrument counts ten double ropes as strings and looks like it rests in the curve of the guitar’s body. The pan flute he’s using seems to float in front of his mouth and a colorful strap ties his guitar to the blue backpack he’s carrying. Attached to that, an enormous drum sticks out above his head. On top of that, copper-golden-colored cymbals and a smaller drum are mounted and all decorated with colorful Ecuadorian patterns. As if the weight of the drums and cymbals isn’t already enough, he stacked some smaller instruments like bells and whistles on top. Attached to one of his legs, a ‘chagchas’, a typical Andes instrument made from sheep hooves and larger seeds, is used to help indicate the rhythm.
One man band
Born in 1980 in Punyaro, cantón Otavalo, Ecuador, José Luis Picuasi Torres is a busker from the Andes region and the oldest of 10 siblings. As a young kid, he started playing and eventually building typical Ecuadorian wind instruments such as the pan flute. Ever since he has been captivated and travels far and wide to share his passion for music.
However, it hasn’t always been easy busking. José arrived in Spain in 2001 in search of a better economic situation for both him and his family. At that time, he had no papers, nor documents and started playing music on the streets to make money to live from. After some time of busking in the streets of Spain, he decided to start experimenting with playing more instruments, because why only play one instrument when you can play a dozen at the same time, right? And thus, after a while of busking, José’s ‘one-man-band’ was born. Every so often José adds a new instrument to his collection and adapts it just so it looks, feels and sounds exactly the way he wants it to. With the money he earns in the streets by playing his heart out, he helps financially support his family where- and whenever possible.
José’s Ecuadorian roots are clearly visible in the unconventional attributes he uses while busking. A couple of stuffed llama’s and some dancing baby dolls on a tiny, leafy brown stage complete the picture. The dolls, both dressed in blue ponchos with red, white and yellow stripes, each have their own tiny charango and seem to play along with José. A white crocheted llama is positioned in between the puppets and holds a drum with his hooves. He plays the panflute while two of his larger cousins guard the sides of the scene. All together it makes for a spectacular and entertaining solo performance that not only turns heads but souls too.
It’s very hard, nearly impossible, to not get instantly happy from seeing this much color, effort, and passion. ‘Seeing people smile, dance, and enjoy the performance is my ultimate moment of glory,’ José says gratefully, ‘to have people coming up to me for saying thank you is absolutely wonderful.’
Busking in Belgium
When I ask José whether Belgium is a good country to be a busker in, the answer is a resounding ‘¡Sí!’. ‘Belgium is home to a lot of different people with various backgrounds and cultures,’ he says, ‘and therefore I think Belgian people are easier when it comes to tolerating and accepting new art forms. Besides that, loads of cities keep artists and buskers from playing in their streets by prohibiting these forms of street art.’
Although Belgians in general may be tolerant, buskers in the city of Brussels still have to get through an official audition and receive an authorization to be able to legally busk in our capital city. Besides that, it’s prohibited to station more than an hour a day in the same place. This measure was created to give all artists and performers the chance to steal the show in busier streets and popular places. If it wasn’t in Brussels, you might have encountered José in either the city of Antwerp, Ostend or Hasselt too.
Got Talent worldwide
José describes his unique music style as ‘typical songs from Ecuador and the Andes region’. Besides that, he also covers songs from other countries, depending on which country he’s playing in at that very moment. ‘Andes music has always been well-received wherever I go’, he explains, and believe me he’s gone a good way. Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Germany, and the UK haven’t been spared from José and his pan flute. Neither has Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, and South-Korea. The latter isn’t entirely surprising since he has lived in Seoul, South-Korea’s capital city, for roughly four years.
If, after all of this compelling evidence, you still aren’t convinced of the incredible talent that José is blessed with, maybe the judges of ‘Spain’s got talent’ can change your mind. In 2019, José auditioned for the now world-famous talent show with his one-man-band and went through to the next round with not two, but three solid yeses and numerous compliments from the jury. In fact, even a comparison was made with the very talented Dick Van Dyke who plays the role of Bert, the remarkable street musician and one-man-band in the memorable movie ‘Mary Poppins’.
Just like the price of gas, the attitude of people changes rapidly and unpredictably. Fortunately for José, the attitude of people towards buskers has changed in a good way, unlike their attitude towards gas prices. ‘In my case,’ he says, ‘I think it’s all been about innovation and uniqueness in entertainment and it will probably always be’. If that’s the case, he’s looking at a bright future. Speaking of the future, José hopes to one day form a musical group in which he can showcase his incredible talent and which will take his experience and skills to an even higher level.
Next time you stroll through Brussels, take some time to stop and listen to people like José. I ensure you it will bring a smile on your face and add a different perspective to your rush. Musicians like José create an easygoing atmosphere in a bustling and lively city, almost as if you’re in a minuscule bubble where time itself slows down or as if you’re on holiday in a foreign metropolis. The only way to really enjoy these wonderful concerts is to simply just stop for a brief moment and listen. It’s these artists that make our cosmopolitan capital city the diverse, charming and ever-changing city it is nowadays. Thanks to buskers like José, the city of Brussels has become this tiny bit more diverse, progressive and vibrant.
Follow José on Instagram to stay up to date on his whereabouts.