Rafa: The Tradie Pianist

March 27, 2019

earth-star Tuk Tuk Cafe, Paddington

Most days you’ll find, Rafael Tavares, 31 busking on a keyboard outside Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building; while six kilometres away, 45 metres underground dozens of men work in the Bondi Waste Water Treatment Plant. And until recently Rafael, called Rafa by his friends, was among their invisible, toiling number. Then his investment in a $46 busking visa and music kit allowed him to escape the eternal night of his everyday to do what he loves the most – play music.

Rafa, like thousands of other young people from Brazil in Australia on a student visa, earns just enough money to scrape by in a tightly budgeted life. Almost three years before, Rafa, recently made redundant from his logistics job, sat on his parents’ Sao Paolo sofa, watching YouTube videos of a sparkling Sydney Harbour and beaches filled with barely clad women. He spent his savings on a student visa, left his close-knit family life behind and began his Australian adventure. He quickly found a place to live (initially with 15 others, representing five nationalities) and landed a low paying job on a building site via the huge Brazilian Facebook expat community. He was unencumbered and enthusiastic, ready for his future to begin.

But life in Sydney can be hard – especially on $20 an hour, before tax. His $1,600 a quarter student fees greedily consumed most of what Rafa managed to save, and he has lived for years on a weekly $40 food budget. The daily subsistence living began to grind him down.

Rafa’s salvation arrived one hot day in February 2017 when he discovered the public grand piano in the QVB, which quietly and elegantly invites people to simply stop, sit and play.

Rafa in Sydney

“ I was working at Darling Harbour. It was very hot; around 30 degrees. I was on my way home and I went to the toilet in the QVB. And then I saw the grand piano. I was very dirty and very tired – I had worked a full day. I had the outfit – high vis. I looked around and I sat down and I started to play. People gathered. After this I started to go back up to three times a week. Sometimes I had to work far away, and I would come back to play 30 minutes before going home.”

Raf had learned the piano at 12, as part of his Baptist church’s focus on gospel music and had been part of a popular band back in Sao Paolo, but hadn’t touched a keyboard in Australia. Now, after long days at work, Rafaele felt happy when he played. He started to look after his hands and his fingers regained their suppleness, no longer just a tool of a purely manual trade.

“For me it was therapy,” Rafa explains to me as I buy him a coffee in a Paddington café in exchange for his story. It’s a wet Saturday, his day off, and Rafa is dressed raffishly, in a straw hat.

In September 2017, Rafa posted to Facebook a few videos of his playing at the QVB, initially for family and friends back in Brazil, then sharing it with other expatriate and musical communities, attracting over 2000 followers. This support, and a throw away comment from an admirer about taking the show on the road got Rafa thinking; maybe he could make money from the thing he was enjoying most about his life in Australia. So, he invested $1000 in a piano, amp and trolley and a City of Sydney busking permit, and became Rafa: The Tradie Pianist.

At first wearing the high visibility clothing made sense as it was Rafa’s daily work uniform. Wearing it to play was one less thing he had to worry about as he moved his cumbersome trolley from the uneven city train platforms to his busking stations at the QVB, Martin Place or outside of Circular Quay. Then he realised that the bright orange vest was fundamental to his standing out from the crowd – that being a tradie playing Queen on a keyboard made people actually see him. And once they overcame the visual confusion of a hard hatted man playing classical music or Cold Play, appreciate his skilled playing; with tips often following.

“Now I am not doing many trade jobs. Only when I get very low tips and I need to work. My main job is pianist, where before my main job was labourer. I love busking,” Rafa says.

And his busking income has on occasion been relatively substantial, so three weeks ago, Raff decided to turn his work wear into a prop, not a tool of trade. He’s now a full-time busker, playing every day around the CBD.

“It’s amazing. I can wake up when I want. I can lunch at my home. It’s very flexible. Sometimes I go early, I go later. I don’t have to set my alarm for five or six a.m. I try to busk for four hours a day.”

And it’s clear from Rafa’s happiness when he talks about busking as his job, that the money and the easier lifestyle are not his only drivers. “The people who are listening enjoy it,” he says.

“Yesterday I was busking, and a Japanese tradie, who had seen me before and had said that he would make me a case for my keyboard came up to me. And he gave me the cover – he said this is for you – to project your equipment. This would never have happened in a tradie job. I was a tradie for the money. I play the piano because I love it.”

Rafa knows that busking is part of a transitory life, that neither it nor his previous occupation in Brazil will lead to permanent Australian residency, the holy grail of international students and those on two year tourist visas; the people probably serving you coffee, washing your car or building your neighbourhood.

“I want to stay here in Australia. I want to get my permanent residency. I want to stay here, but let’s see,” Raff says, as he puts on his hard hat and clean high visibility vest, transforming from marketing student into Rafa: the Tradie Pianist and smiling for my camera.

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