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Bamboo Saxophone Busker

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Bamboo Saxophone Busker in Mexico

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- The sound of a booming saxophone can be heard at intervals throughout the city of San Cristobal de las Casas — it is just one of those familiar things about a day here, it has become a part of the landscape. Wherever you go throughout the downtown area of this city, there is a reasonable chance that you will hear the saxophone, maybe its player will make a song just for you, perched at the doorway of the restaurant your eating in.

The player of the saxophone goes from store front to restaurant to bar throughout the day, plays a little tune for a few minutes, and then collects spare change from the listeners. This is how he makes a living: he is wandering saxophonist in line with the folklore of mariachis wandering through Mexico, playing music for gratuities.

But his saxophones are not made from brass — they do not even have one metallic part — the wandering saxophonist makes his instruments from bamboo.

Bamboo saxophone

Bamboo saxophone

I stopped and listened to a song the saxophonist was playing one day at the door of a coffee shop in San Cristobal. My daughter, Petra, danced to the booming sound of air ripping through bamboo. Even though this instrument was made from pilfered forest material, it still sounded — in almost every way — as good or even better than a standard brass saxophone. The boom of the notes come out clean, and can be heard blocks away. It is with surprise that passerbys realize that the instrument was hand made from bamboo.

Video of bamboo saxophone playing busker

After nearly a month of listening to the wandering saxophonist ply his trade, I introduced myself formally. We shook hands and he told me that his name was Malcolm. It was a strange name, I have not heard it before — but his name was not what I was interested in, his instrument was.

“Did you make the saxophone yourself?” I asked.

Malcolm nodded proudly.

“How did you learn how to make a saxophone out of bamboo?” I asked the pinnacle question.

He explained that he learned how to make musical instruments from his brother, who makes bamboo clarinets in Indonesia.

“How long does it take to make one?” I asked.

Malcolm thought for a minute before answering that he can make one in two weeks time.

Bamboo saxophone busker

Bamboo saxophone busker

He then pulled a second saxophone from a bag that he was carrying with him and handed it over to me. I took it, giving the instrument a full inspection. It was 100% hand crafted from various lengths of sturdy bamboo, the pieces of which were assembled together with bee resin and, in some places, a little wood glue. At the bottom bend of the saxophone, there was a support brace with two screws holding it place — this turned out to be the instrument’s only metallic part, the rest of it was completely natural wild materials that Malcomo crafted himself. Even the mouthpiece — which slipped on and off to allow for cleaning like a standard saxophone — was completely constructed from bamboo. Even the reed was hand made.

I was holding a truly one of a kind instrument in my hands, turning it upside down, around and around to look at every detail. I asked Malcolm why there was a succession of holes bored between the bow and the bell.

“So it sounds like “BOOOOOM!” Malcolm exclaimed with a twinkle in his eye.

He played a note. It boomed.

These saxophones truly do boom, they boom all over the city — they have created a truly landmark sound in San Cristobal de las Casas.

He then offered to sell the saxophone to me. He told me that he had sold his bamboo saxophones to travelers from all over the world: “Espania, Francia . . . ” Malcolm’s list of places that his saxophones traveled to continued to grow. The prices for these one of a kind, handmade bamboo saxophones were not bad — a little under $50 each — but as I put the reed up to my mouth and blew, I realized that I no longer knew how to play a saxophone.

I blew into the mouthpiece and nothing but stale air whisked through the instrument. The bamboo saxophone would not boom for me, I again felt like a band rookie.

I quickly handed the instrument back to Malcolm and was reminded of how I similarly handed a brass Yamaha tenor sax back to my band instructor in the 6th grade. I remembered how the conductor looked at me with scorn when I admitted that I no longer wanted to be a saxophone player. I remember how he flew up in a rage and called me bullheaded. But I now believe that he may have been wrong about me:

As I still do not want to be a saxophone player.

More photos of bamboo saxophones

Neck of bamboo saxophone

Neck of bamboo saxophone

Keys and bell of bamboo saxophone

Holes bored into the bell of the bamboo saxophone

Bamboo saxophone reed

Another photo of the reed of the bamboo saxophone

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Malcolm told me that he had been making, playing, and selling these bamboo saxophones for three years. It is rumored that he comes from somewhere in the north of Mexico, I have no idea how long he was been wandering around San Cristobal making a living playing music in the doorways of restaurants, bars, and cafes.

Bamboo saxophone busker

This is how the bamboo saxophonist makes his living: he plays his bamboo saxaphone all through the streets, busking the town, making music which the downtown residents of San Cristobal have come to know well.

I passed over a few pesos for the interview, and Malcolm walked on to the doorway of the next restaurant to serenade its diners with the booming notes from his bamboo saxophone.

This is a guy who has made his own life, a person who created a niche for himself and filled it. Such independent occupations exist all over the planet, and thousands of people are traveling the globe living off of trades that they created for themselves: no bosses, no one telling them what to do, what to make, how to do it. These travelers exhibit the unnerving fact that there is no reason to work for someone else if you don’t want to, they show that it is possible to travel the world making and selling jewelry, playing music, giving massages, busking, teaching various skill, sharing knowledge, or by plying certain trades.

Throughout the upcoming weeks, I will be interviewing travelers who make up with their travel funds by plying independent trades and services around the world. Keep reading to find out how they cut the employment tether and made their own life.

Series Navigation<< Baked Goods Travel BusinessFreelance Writing to Fund Travels >>
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Filed under: Independent Travel Business, Mexico, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap