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WTF: What's up with the mask-wearing Church Street didgeridoo player?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published August 17, 2011 at 10:32 a.m.

Michael Sampson
  • Michael Sampson

It’s close to dusk on a summer day in Burlington, and half the city seems to be out strolling on Church Street. Couples promenade arm in arm, parents wrangle children holding dribbling ice cream cones, and teenagers preen like peacocks. There is so much visual stimulation that it’s tough to focus on any one thing.

But then, through the ambling crowd, a striking figure materializes. He’s sitting on a box drum wearing ecru linen trousers and a fur vest. On his right shoulder perches a crow puppet, so lifelike it looks as if it could take flight. Around one of the man’s ankles is a tambourine. On the other leg, a shaker sticks out of his shoe. A mask carved in the likeness of a deer, complete with spiked horns, obscures his face. He holds a long, tubular piece of wood in his hands. In front of the wooden tube — a didgeridoo shaped from western alder — rests an old suitcase full of crumpled dollar bills.

The man has the ethereal aura of a shaman. Except he’s rapping. And keeping the beat by slapping the box and stamping his feet. After a verse or two, he blows into the didgeridoo, and a low, rumbling drone pours out. There’s something entrancing enough about the whole package — the costume, the instruments, the fact that this isn’t just a guy strumming a guitar and bleating tired choruses— to make passersby stick around. He’s not standard Church Street busking fare.

So what’s the deal with this didgeridude?

His name is Michael Sampson, though his friends call him Tree — a nickname bestowed by the toddler son of a friend — and he’s originally from Columbia County, N.Y., a rural county sandwiched between western Massachusetts and the Hudson River.

During his youth, 31-year-old Sampson was never one for school. He had too much energy to sit in a classroom. He tried his hand at college but quickly dropped out. When he was 20, he moved to California to work on an organic apple farm. The seasonal nature of the job gave him the opportunity to travel.

“I came into contact with the whole rest of the world,” he says.

But global travel was expensive, and Sampson had to figure out how to make money on the road. He already played the guitar and decided to incorporate a harmonica into the mix, “Dylan-style.”

“It’s the rite of passage for any street musician. The American male street musician, we all start with a guitar and a harmonica handle,” he says, laughing. “Then you evolve from there.”

In Spain, armed with his six-string and his mouth organ, Sampson played Tom Waits, Neil Young and, of course, Bob Dylan on street corners and shopping thoroughfares. He made about $17 an hour. But he couldn’t compete with the Gypsies playing flamenco. Their music was intense and perfectly suited to the landscape. American rock, blues and folk were not.

He needed to change up the routine. With a friend, Sampson began dressing in outrageous costumes and rapping. The hip-hop act elicited a far better response than the singer-songwriter show.

Sampson added the didgeridoo, a 1500-year-old Australian Aboriginal pipe, after he found his way to a “spiritually minded hippie commune” in Andalusia. People were living in yurts and teepees, chanting, drumming and playing the didgeridoo. Sampson was exposed to a whole new musical world.

After living at the commune for a bit, Sampson made his way to Portugal with his new didgeridoo and djembe drum and continued busking. He did OK, but his haul was nothing like what the human statues made.

“I said, ‘OK, I need to incorporate some theater. I need to put a mask on and do something to get people to pay attention,’” Sampson says. “I’m an advertisement for myself. People are exposed to all the stimulus in the city, and I need them to stop and be like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

His first mask was made of leaves and worn with a “beasty” cloak. He went from making $17 an hour to more than $100. His pockets bulging with euros, Sampson returned to his apple farm job in California. When the season ended, he considered traveling back to Europe, but instead chose to tour as a street artist in the U.S.

Sampson bought a small camper and visited various cities until he landed in Burlington last summer at the behest of a friend. The city felt European, he says, with its pedestrian walkway and good acoustics. Plus, the tourists were generous.

Sampson’s shows are largely improvised. Because the didgeridoo has a limited harmonic scale, it can produce only so many different sounds. The improv is always familiar, but it still manages to sound fresh. The audience stands transfixed, as if watching some ancient ritual. Magic seems to reverberate through the air.

“I think, when people see me and feel me, it looks like I’m accessing a state and, in a way, creating through the music a channel,” Sampson says. “And people who are sensitive to that, they just open up to it.”

Beats strumming the guitar for spare change.

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