Credit: Nick Soveiko

How busking on the streets made Damo Suzuki into a musical hero

“If you are really a free person, you don’t copy anybody. You try to make a life on your own terms. To be as free as possible is to not belong anywhere or to anybody. Just trust yourself. “ — Damo Suzuki

The sense of freedom that Can’s Damo Suzuki nurtured throughout his life turned him not only into a unique musician but also a rebel of the structure that compels people to learn music a certain way. Unlike Suzuki, if one is caught up in the process of making and selling music, then chances are you’ll come unstuck. The irony of creativity following any set structure is one we must all revel in, and it’s one that Suzuki would likely be appalled by.

Most popular for his work with the pioneering German group Can, Suzuki was the frontman of the krautrock music scene in 1970s Germany. Emerging in the late 1960s in Germany, Krautrock was a genre of improvisational rock and electronic music with minimalistic arrangements. Suzuki, an Asian man, being the frontman of such a culture-specific genre, is yet another irony.

Though he never set out to be a musician, music was his constant companion from a very young age. Growing up in Kobe, Japan his first instrument was the flute which was gifted to him by his sister when he was eight-years-old. Never believing in the fragment genres of theoretical music, Suzuki’s musical taste drifted from classical music to American R&B.

Having wanderlust in his blood Suzuki left home at seventeen to explore the world. “I didn’t actually want to be a musician. I wasn’t so much in contact with other musicians – I just liked to visit different countries and meet other people. I was much more interested in the process of studying other human beings, so music was a tool that helped me do that,” said Suzuki in the Louder Sound interview.

In fact, before he entered mainstream music with the Can, Suzuki spent his days independently, busking in the streets of Europe. A hippie soul, he couldn’t thrive long in the heavily formatted industry with its record labels and scheduled performances. He broke away from the monotony to practice a more impulsive and experimental live music. After leaving the band in1973, Suzuki took a break for ten long years before returning with a band introducing Damo Suzuki’s Network, the umbrella term for his world-wide collaborations with improvisational musicians.

The inspiration behind this idea can be traced back to his busking days, from the time he arrived in Sweden with a clarinet, saxophone and guitar to the moment when he was discovered by his future bandmates. “I first began busking when I left my girlfriend in Gothenburg,” recalled the multi-instrumentalist. “I didn’t work anywhere; I didn’t even want to belong anywhere. I’ve always liked to have a greater sense of freedom in my life. And so, I busked for one year, alone. I began in Sweden and then travelled to Denmark, Germany, and, finally, France” reminisced Suzuki during his interview with the Hopes&Fears magazine.

According to Suzuki, he wasn’t particularly interested in the monetary aspect of busking. In any case, it fetched him very little. So, with part-time jobs in a restaurant or a farm and spontaneous jamming on the streets, Suzuki enjoyed his minimalistic life to the fullest: “I didn’t make good money busking, but I would busk when I didn’t have enough to eat or travel to the next spot. I would busk about once every three days,” clarified the artist.

Being quite frank about his artistic skills, Suzuki admitted that he was a poor guitar player and composed pieces based on only two, three chords that he could play. His physical appearance rather than his musicality attracted people: “I think I was quite strange-looking that time. I had really long hair, and I think a lot of people watched me because they were curious about who I was… They were curious about me because it was the end of the 60s and, in this period, there were not many Japanese people, or Asian people, in general, in Europe. I had an androgynous look, so people would wonder, ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’ They watched me as if I were an animal in a zoo. They weren’t interested in hearing my music or songs, they were just curious about who I was.”

However, the life of a busker was not always fun. The police maltreated the hippies in some European countries back in the day. “In Paris in July of 1969, I was just walking down the street with my broken guitar and sleeping bag, and the police arrested and held me for five hours just because I had long hair”, was one instance that Suzuki detailed. He also recalled how people gathering around him would jam the small streets of Sweden and how the police would come and break up the crowd.

Suzuki preferred the bustling city streets as it was full of life and welcoming. “I met so many interesting people who supported me and who would let me stay with them. The times were different. There was so much more communication and real connection than there is today.” He talked about a particularly pleasant experience where he got to travel to Ireland with two girls he met in the streets of Northern France. During his four-month stay, from August to December 1969, the mother of the two girls put him up and tendered to him with warmth: “Their mother was a really nice person. She had eight kids, but even so, she was so kind to me. She was like a second mother to me.” They kept in touch for years, across many oceans and mountains.

One of these random street adventures and casual interactions also led him to the band. Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, the bassist and drummer of Can, followed the melodic lead to find Suzuki performing amidst a crowd. The band’s lead singer Malcolm Mooney had recently parted ways with the group, and the team was searching for a replacement. Their offer was enthusiastically accepted by Suzuki, who performed with them that very night. The rest is history.

“I can’t remember what I did,” Suzuki shared, “but it must have been quite loud, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have seen me because I’m a fairly small person. Most people couldn’t see me if I didn’t make a lot of noise. But the band noticed me and asked me if I would sing with them that same night. They had a concert at a big discotheque.”

It has been years since, but Suzuki, who is currently battling with colon cancer, still has the wide-eyed optimism of a busker. “I think I’m still living this way. I’m making music now, but still I’m not working within the industry. I don’t have any managers. I arrange my own concerts. I like this kind of freedom.” Let’s hope he gets to enjoy the contagious positivity he emits as long as he wants.