You’ve probably seen (and heard) him before: Cyrille Estève, aka Spoonman, has been playing the spoons on Sainte-Catherine Street for the past 17 years. In 2004, Ogilvy tried to kick him off their doorstep, sparking a petition that got Spoonman a whole lot of hype and a feature in National Geographic as a living symbol of the French-Canadian culture. Though he takes pride in carrying on the Quebec musical tradition of the spoons, his history and relationship with the city of Montreal is complex.
How did you first become a busker?
Spoonman: I was born in France, but I’ve lived in Canada for 60 years now; I’m 62. I lived in France and got a university degree, but my diploma is not recognized here, so I ended up on welfare. I was looking for a job and I started this 17 years ago, because I thought it would just be for a couple of weeks until I found a job. It was just to survive. Doing this, I realized a few things: first of all, I make as much money as if I would work, but if I’m late in the morning nobody will bother me. If I want to leave earlier I don’t have to ask for permission, I have no boss no employee nobody to bother me — you know, no quotas to meet. And even if today I would like to find a job, who would hire a 62-year-old man who’s been playing the spoons for 17 years? Its useless to send CVs, so I’m happy doing what I do. That’s it.
Why did you choose to play the spoons, specifically?
Spoonman: Well I had no knowledge of music — I knew no instruments at all. So I was looking for an instrument that was easy to learn, easy to carry, and that I could play even in the winter time. So I started with the spoons.
How long have you been in this specific spot for? And why here (in front of Ogilvy)?
Spoonman: 17 years. Why always here? I mean, I need a spot where the sidewalks are wide, because of my bike and all the equipment. I need a place where most people are wealthy. I mean, if I would do this in front of the salvation army, I wouldn’t make as much money as if I would do this in front of a store like Burks or Ogilvy. You know? And most importantly I need a spot where they can’t hear me from inside; if they can hear me from inside, they call the police and I’m done.
What do you love most about Montreal?
Spoonman: What I love most? (Long pause) nothing in particular.
Do certain things about Montreal inspire you?
Spoonman: No. Montreal is a city like the others.
So you’ve been in the same sport for several years, have you seen anything that you didn’t like?
Spoonman: That I didn’t like? No, not really.
How do you think people react to you playing the spoons?
Spoonman: Well you know. (Long pause) most people like what I’m doing, some people just hate me, but you know doing something to please everyone is impossible. In 2004, Ogilvy tried to get rid of me, because it wasn’t good for their image to have someone playing the spoons on the sidewalk. I had a petition going on: 5,000 people signed my petition, three people told me “Good riddance, we wont hear you anymore!” So you can’t please everybody, but if 5,000 people say “Yes!” and three people say “No!” I’m not unhappy with the results! Most people like it.
Its no secret that you’ve had legal issues with the city over your right to play spoons. Can you tell us anything about that?
Spoonman: I would love if they would start over once more because the spoons to Quebec are what the castanets are to Spain or the bagpipes are to Scotland. The amount of support I’ve had from the media and from the public has just been tremendous. And the publicity: I had 60 journalists interviewing me here, I was on the front page of all papers in North America and I’m on the list of the 50 most famous Montrealers in the world! There’s Maurice Richard and Jean Drapeau and Mylène Farmer and me. You know, I’m just a poor busker and I’m with Celine Dion — it’s crazy! And obviously I made much more money because people were throwing 20 dollar and 50 dollar bills on my plate. But now that it’s over it’s one dollar or two dollars. So I would love if they would start to bug me again. I’d love it.
You have been mentioned by National Geographic Traveler magazine as a living symbol of the French-Canadian culture. How does that make you feel?
Spoonman: Yup! Something funny: they called me from Washington—it was June 24th—to know how to put the accent on my name. Because you know in French “Estève” has an accent and they didn’t know exactly if they had to put it this way or that way, if it was an accent aigu or accent grave. They called me from Washington just for that! I’m pleased to have been mentioned in an article about Montreal as a living symbol of French-Canadian culture.
Did you think that it would take you this far 17 years ago?
Spoonman: No. When I started to play the spoons, I had no knowledge of music. It was just to survive until I found a job and then 17 years later, I’m still here and I’m happy as I am.