It’s a stormy Saturday night in the small village of Loppersum, located just a short train ride north from Groningen. The man sitting across from me is balancing his coffee cup on the armrest of his leather sofa. He is looking at me with a mixture of friendly amusement and an edge of indifference. This is not his first interview; he knows the drill. “I’ve been asked practically everything”, he says with a little sigh. No wonder. Moti Rymarczuk (64) is Groningen’s most famous street musician. His voice is known as the city’s unofficial anthem.
“Locals call me onze muzikant”, he says proudly, “our musician”. He laughs his husky laugh, “I am a property to them”. This man is as much part of the city of Groningen as the canals that frame it, or the maze of streets that compose it.
Street musicians are usually nomads, never staying in one place for long. But Moti’s voice has meant home to generations of Stadjers. Over the past 40 years, Moti has been a constant in the city. During that time, he has stepped into thousands of strangers’ lives, listened to their stories and sang their songs. “It is nice to know that somehow you mean quite a lot to some people”, he says.
This isn’t how it’s always been, though. The people of Groningen were distant at first, he tells me. But with a little patience and a whole lot of rock ’n’ roll, he sang his way straight into their hearts. Moti knows how unique his standing is with this city and its inhabitants, but he doesn’t boast. “I stayed the way I am; they liked the way I am, it fitted”, he smiles.
From the USSR to Groningen
“Our musician” came to Groningen as a foreigner. Born in the former USSR, Moti’s parents immigrated to Israel when he was only 2 years old. Having spent most of his childhood and teenage years there, he calls Israel his second home.
After high school and his time in the army, he shouldered his guitar case and set out to play music all around the world.
But how did he end up in the Netherlands? “It was just a normal story”, he claims modestly. Falling in love, creating a family and getting divorced again. His two grown-up sons are his anchor nowadays, keeping the musical globetrotter in a sleepy town in the northern Netherlands.
“I will probably be buried in this village, there is a nice cute graveyard here”, he winks.
A life filled with music
“I played music all the time”, Moti remembers. In fact, he has never worked another job. “Why should I?”, he grins and shakes his head, his curly white mane dancing around his impish grin. “This job suits me like a glove”.
His first instrument was his voice, the second an accordion. When his love for rock ’n’ roll was sparked, he picked up a guitar for the first time. “Before I knew how to play, I was pretending” he laughs and jams on an imaginary instrument on his lap. “You know, with a broomstick”, he added. “But in my mind, I was already a star anyways”, he says, grinning.
The language of music
Music has accompanied Moti throughout his entire life. But to him, music doesn’t mean so much. “It’s not the music. It’s what I get through with the music”. “The emotions that you trigger in other people are truly beautiful”, Moti explains.
It doesn’t matter where in the world one is; music is understood everywhere. “With it, we manage to shake the cold out of the people”, he tells me about his street musician colleagues. Whether he played for Norwegians, Japanese, Chinese or Italians, “they end up all the same: screaming and shouting!”
In his youth, Moti preferred a roaring crowd. But things change. Nowadays it is often the youngest audience members that touch the Rock ‘n’ Roller at his core. Children are brutally honest and while they probably don’t pick up on the song itself, they pick up on so much more. “If they stand in front of me, dance and tell me they like my music – That is something else, where can you get such a thing?”, Moti gushes.
One time, he tells me, he was playing in front of the HEMA in Groningen. A father and his little daughter stood close by, watching him. Suddenly the girl started walking towards Moti, “she came closer, closer, closer…and I didn’t know what to do”, he remembers. She walked up to him and kissed him, then returned to her father. “I was crying afterwards, big time”, his smile glows as he indulges in the memory. “These are the sort of moments…”, he pauses, “I call myself lucky for this”.
The magic of the streets
In street music, the artist has a relationship with the audience that a musician on stage can never establish.
Being on stage in front of an anonymous cheering mass can make you think you’ve made it to the top “but basically it’s fuck all, it’s nothing”, Moti says. “You are living in your bubble and that’s it”.
On the street it’s different. There is a special connection to every face in the audience. “Maybe I am living in my bubble too”, he laughs, “but my bubble is shared with the bubbles of other people!”
Once the connection is established, these people are more open than in any other situation. They tell Moti their stories, cry about lost loved ones and celebrate their victories. He smiles proudly, “that’s the magic of the street”.
Playing by his own rules
Moti has always done things his way. “I may know the rules, but I tend to ignore them”, he says and smirks. “Some places I can get away with that and some places I do not”. Clashes with the authorities, arrests, court cases – he’s been through it all. “At the end of the day, what can they do to me,” he laughs sheepishly, “what, kill me? – I don’t think so”.
Of course, the job is sometimes frustrating, but it is his passion and he knows that doing a job that you love makes it a whole lot easier.
Either way, one thing is clear, says Moti: “I will continue playing music until the end.”