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Buskers are back, with the sounds of summer

A saxophonist who specializes in national anthems by the aquarium, the hurdy-gurdy man who plays downtown, and a singing fiddler on Newbury Street are three of the performers who’ve made Boston streets, sidewalks, and subway stations their stage.

Tenor saxophone player Jonte Samuel entertains crowds outside the New England Aquarium. Local outdoor buskers deal with everything from difficult weather to indifferent wanderers. Central Wharf is a favorite spot for Samuel because of the heavy foot traffic from the Harborwalk, aquarium, boat tours, and other nearby attractions.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The city of Boston has more than 1,600 miles worth of sidewalks, walkways, paths, and parks. As long as they’re not violating any city ordinances or obstructing passage, street performers can claim almost any spot in these public areas as their stage. In summer, it’s rare to walk more than a few blocks downtown without encountering at least one street musician, whether a graceful erhu player in the Public Garden, a folk duo harmonizing in Downtown Crossing, or a man in a fuzzy bear mask wielding a keytar.

If you’re a musician, busking may be the most direct way to get others to hear your music, but when it comes to actually getting people to listen or add to the tip jar, it’s hardly reliable. When famed violinist Joshua Bell went incognito for a 43-minute set in Washington, D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, only seven people stopped to listen, and he made a total of $52.17, including $20 from the single passerby who recognized him. “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah … ignoring me,” Bell told The Washington Post, laughing at himself.

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Being ignored is part of busking — I know from personal experience. When I started learning the accordion, I began busking outside farmers’ markets as soon as I could squeeze a few tunes from the “Amelie” soundtrack. Eleven years later, every time I busk, I never know whether the next hour will bring me $2, $20, or $200. Still, there are a few ways to stand out, and it helps to find a niche.

Street musicians Donald and Anicet Heller are married hurdy-gurdy players who have been busking in Boston for more than a decade. They're pictured here busking outside the Old State House in Boston with their dog Django on Donald's knee. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The saxophonist from St. John

You hear Jonte Samuel before you see him. Through the bustle of an early summer day by the New England Aquarium — idling buses, shouting children, blaring boat horns — a rousing tune played on a tenor saxophone floats over the harbor. Follow the sound, and there’s Samuel, his instrument flashing in the sunlight while a display board at his feet advertises his musical offerings. “I play 173 national anthems,” it reads amid Scotch-taped cutouts of national flags.

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Central Wharf is a favorite spot for Samuel because of the heavy foot traffic from the Harborwalk, aquarium, boat tours, and other nearby attractions. During the summer, the aquarium attracts upward of 5,000 visitors a day, more than the entire population of his native island of St. John, according to the 2020 census, the smallest of the US Virgin Islands. Samuel moved here in 2010 to study jazz saxophone at Berklee College of Music, and though he still takes the occasional jazz gig, he busks almost every day that the weather allows.

The anthems gimmick happened almost by accident, Samuel said as he took a break on a sunny weekday, chugging some water. He used to set up outside TD Garden when shows let out, and he’d play the greatest hits of whoever was performing that night. So when Boston hosted the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in 2016, he decided to learn the national anthems of the competitors.

Since then, his anthems have been caught on video and gone viral in Thailand, Mexico, and Ukraine. His repertoire also includes songs from anime and video games, and pop and folk songs from several countries. He says he’s seen people from all over the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East smile when they hear “Kâtibim,” a folk melody of likely Turkish origin that took root wherever it landed.

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He estimates that he probably plays more Arabic songs than anything else — but, he admits, he’s not too confident playing them, because the tuning system (which includes quarter-tones) differs from what he’s used to. “I kind of feel bad sometimes, but people really enjoy it!” Samuel said.

His break abruptly ended when he noticed staff setting up a booth to sell photographs to people on a returning whale-watch boat. By the time the boat pulled into its berth, he was already playing. “La Vie en Rose” wafted from the bell of his saxophone as the whale watchers disembarked, and tourists and locals called out to one another in a mélange of languages. Several people held up their phones to film Samuel; a few dropped cash in his bucket.

“Where are you from?” he called out to a passing family. Russia, one of them said, and he immediately pulled out a medley of “Kalinka” and “Korobeiniki,” which is known to the rest of the world as the “Tetris” theme. No response.

Unfazed, he shifted gears into a familiar, pulsating melody — The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive.”

Tenor saxophone player Jonte Samuel entertains crowds outside the New England Aquarium. Local outdoor buskers deal with everything from difficult weather to indifferent wanderers. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The hurdy-gurdy man

Donald Heller’s hurdy-gurdy might be the quintessential street performer’s instrument, given its long associations with itinerant musicians in Europe. “I wanted to be a traveling musician,” he said on a recent afternoon over FaceTime from Portugal. “I liked medieval music, so I knew about the hurdy-gurdy. Then I heard one and said, ‘That’s for me!’” He and his wife, Anicet, both recently picked up new hurdy-gurdies in Galicia, and were busking their way down the coast.

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The hurdy-gurdy, which has a history spanning over 1,000 years, produces its distinctive reedy droning sound with a hand-cranked wheel that rubs against several strings. It requires frequent tuning and maintenance; dust and heat are not its friends. “The street is hard on hurdy-gurdies,” Heller said.

A detail of the hurdy-gurdy. Boston street musicians Donald and Anicet Heller are married hurdy-gurdy players who have been busking here for more than a decade. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Lately, he has been frustrated to find fewer public benches than he recalls seeing when he moved to Boston 12 years ago (he’s been a street musician for more than 45 years in total). And he says good busking spots — busy but not noisy, where people can linger to listen — have become harder to find.

He has noticed a “much bigger diversity” of street musicians in Europe, including during the Portugal trip. “There are hundreds of smaller cities where you can busk,” he said, “and I’m not just saying it’s permitted. I’m saying there’s enough people to come and listen to you.” The cities of Porto and Lisbon are full of squares and lookout points, he noted, where a busker can stand and play with a backdrop of rivers, hills, and castles.

Heller, who often busks with his wire-haired dachshund, Django, can be found in various spots downtown during the warmer months. He used to play in MBTA stations but doesn’t anymore because the loud noise from the trains and the air quality bothered him. “I would come home and blow my nose, and it would just be all black,” he said.

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Donald and Anicet Heller.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff


The blues fiddler who loves the T

Every time Ilana Katz Katz (her middle name and surname are the same) hauls her gear from her Back Bay home, she says “a little prayer, to ask that I reach whoever I’m supposed to reach that day,” said Katz, a blues and Appalachian fiddler and singer/songwriter originally from the Midwest. “I can tell when somebody’s really excited about what I’m doing. … Even if they’re not coming over to me, I can see a little foot tapping.”

Unlike Heller, Katz loves the T and is eager to return to her customary spot at Park Street Station, once the MBTA starts issuing performer licenses again after stopping during the pandemic. (Anyone can busk above ground without a license in Boston, but the MBTA requires a yearly permit.)

Fiddler and singer Ilana Katz Katz performs mostly blues outside the Newbury Street CVS. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“Because people are waiting on a platform, it’s a different kind of opportunity to connect with people,” said Katz. “The first time I went to play in the subway, I felt that was an important purpose for me. For some reason, I seem to touch people in a different way when I play on the MBTA.” For the moment, she’s setting up in bustling aboveground spots like Newbury Street.

She likes the anonymity. “Nobody knows who I am, or what I’ve done or what I haven’t done,” she said. “They respond to the music I’m playing.”

Recently, she participated in a festival incorporating street performers that was hosted by Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Staff were on hand to assist the artists, which made for a strange experience. “I’m very self-sufficient. I’ve been that way for a long time,” Katz said. “I’m not used to anyone helping me!”

Fiddler and singer Ilana Katz Katz, outside the Newbury Street CVS, likes the anonymity of busking. “Nobody knows who I am, or what I’ve done or what I haven’t done,” she said. “They respond to the music I’m playing.” Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.