The medicine of music on the streets of Cooma – the Australian National Busking Championships

Sharon White, “Music is healing.” Photo: Ian Campbell.
Sharon White, “Music is healing.” Photo: Ian Campbell.

The recent Australian National Busking Championships were more than a tourism and commerce promo for the Monaro.

Sure, the tills were ringing, but for those who stopped to listen and watch the 180-odd performers dotted around Cooma’s CBD, something more valuable was at play – the joy and medicine of music.

Despite the grandiose name, this year was the first time the Championships were a truly national affair.

Throughout 2017, Rotary Clubs along the East Coast staged their own regional heats, culminating in a Cooma showdown on the first weekend in November.

The best buskers from Noosa, Stanthorpe, Ballarat, Wangaratta, Narooma, and Berry competed across a range of categories.

The top prize of $2000 went to Ballarat’s one-man band, Geoffrey Williams. The Rhythm Hunters from Narooma Primary School won the crowd vote and $1000 – their drums and spunk were hard to walk past.

Cooma music teacher Allan Spencer and his comrades from Cooma Rotary got the momentum rolling and are rightly proud of their ‘baby’ six years after it started as a Cooma only event.

“Yeah we’ve got some wonderful stories,” Allan says.

“There’s Canberra’s Guyy Lilleyman, who won in 2013 and 2014, and on the strength of 2013, he was picked up by an agent and he had a tour of South Africa.

“He went on to complete a 10-week tour of Afghanistan, entertaining Australian and NATO troops,” he says.

There is an art to pulling a crowd on a busy street of passers-by who are perhaps more intent on getting the day’s groceries than stopping to listen to some tunes.

Being cute, loud, and colourful is worthy and part of the festival’s appeal but what unfolds in Cooma is a genuine celebration of music and those who share it with us.

#Narooma Rhythm Hunters from Narooma Primary School, contenders at the Australian National Busking Championships in #Cooma.Ian

Posted by About Regional on Friday, 3 November 2017


Sharon White, a singer-songwriter from Sydney, remembers coming to Cooma as a kid on holidays.

Her powerful voice sitting on a milk crate in front of the fish and chips shop on Sharp Street called me over from the big trees of Centennial Park.

Stopping to listen I realised there was more to this little lady with a cane.

The lyrics she sings speak of love, loss, hurt, recovery, and release.

“She’s got a story to tell,” the couple next to me says to each other.

Sharon didn’t win any of the awards that day – the fact that she is alive seems to be Sharon’s prize.

“I write all my own songs, and events like this are good for original material,” Sharon says.

“There are a few people here playing covers, and they’ll probably get the people in, but my stuff is personal.”

Sharon White, “I am already a winner.” Photo: Ian Campbell.
Sharon White, “I am already a winner.” Photo: Ian Campbell.

Sharon says she comes from a musical family.

“My great-grandmother was Sydney’s second-best opera singer,” she says.

“I’ve got her voice.”

Dame Nellie Melba was the only voice better than her great-grandmothers according to Sharon.

“I just do what I do because I love it,” Sharon smiles.

“I write about life experiences, everything that happens in my life, I’ll probably write a song about talking to you!”

At the suggestion that music might have a healing effect in her life, Sharon pulls a pink, polished gemstone from her pocket with the word ‘healing’ engraved across its surface. A lucky stone that pushes her on.

“I lost my brother and I sort of lost myself for a little while, I was messed up, too much alcohol,” Sharon starts to explain.

“And my son said to me one day – if I lose you, I’ll have no one, so I said okay, I’ll fix myself up.”

The song “I am Gonna Fly” from Sharon’s homemade album “The Naked Truth” was born of that time.

“I sing that song now with a smile because it’s now a recovery song, it gives me strength and I think of my son and brother,” Sharon says.

“It makes me go on.”

The walking stick that helps Sharon cart her amp and guitar around Cooma’s CBD is a reminder of a car accident that almost claimed Sharon’s life, another time when music played its healing tune.

“I don’t even know it [music]’s there, I just do this,” Sharon says.

“I come up with songs all the time, it feels good to create something that wasn’t there before.”

Another song “I am Going to Nashville” points to where Sharon hopes her music and a few coins in her guitar case will take her one day.

“In Sydney, I can make about $300 in three hours,” she says.

While it was a fella from Ballarat and a bunch of kids from Narooma that claimed the big prizes at the Australian National Busking Championships, Sharon says the festival has been a great opportunity to share her music.

“It doesn’t matter if I win or lose, I’ve already won – I have my life and I have my songs,” Sharon says.

Sharon has auditioned for the upcoming season of the TV talent show “The Voice”, she’s waiting to hear if she has made it through to the next round.

Cooma will be cheering you on Sharon!

*This article was originally published to Riot ACT

Cooma busking championships become truly national

Allan Spencer, founder of the Australian National Busking Championships, with the Busk CD featuring talent from the festival.
Allan Spencer, founder of the Australian National Busking Championships, with the Busk CD featuring talent from the festival.

Cooma’s annual busking festival is going national.

For the last five years, the Australian National Busking Championships have been based on the Monaro. And while talent from across the nation has been drawn to the streets of Cooma to compete and take part, that claim of being a ‘national championship’ didn’t carry the weight the name implies.

That changes in 2017.

With the backing of Rotary Clubs along the East Coast, the Busking Championships will cover three states and at least six regional centres.

Cooma based Championship Founder, Allan Spencer is delighted as he rattles off communities that have picked up the idea and run with it, including Stanthorpe and Noosa Heads in Queensland, Ballarat and Wangaratta in Victoria, Narooma and Berry in New South Wales.

Most of the towns taking part are combining the Championships with an existing festival that needs a bit of ‘sparkling up’ according to Allan.

“I think that works well, because busking won’t work unless you’ve got a lot of people,” he says.

“In Stanthorpe for instance, they’ve got an apple and grape festival that’s in it’s fiftieth year and  it’s tremendously well attended, they have sixty thousand visitors, so the busking was quite an easy fit.”

Surrounded by the instruments and sheet music of his long-running business, Allan becomes emotional talking about the success of the Busking Championships.

“Yeah we’ve got some wonderful stories,” Allan says.

Guy Lilleyman
Guy Lilleyman

“There’s Guy Lilleyman, who’s a Canberra based musician, he won the title – Open Champion in 2013 and  2014. And on the strength of 2013, he was picked up by an agent and he had a tour of South Africa.

“He’s just come back from a 10-week tour of Afghanistan, entertaining Australian and NATO troops,” he says.

Allan’s connection with the Cooma community goes back 30 plus years, his connection with music even longer – around 40 years.

“It’s always been a bit of a crusade of mine to try and promote talent,” Allan says.

As the owner of the Cooma School of Music, the organisers of the annual Snowy Ride approached Allan in 2011 looking for live entertainment during their annual fundraiser for the Steven Walter Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Over 2200 motorcycle riders took part in this year’s Snowy Ride, adding a whopping $250,000 to the $6 million that has been collected since 2001. The Australian National Busking Championships that were created to serve the Ride are now very much a part of the whole weekend each November, covering 28 locations around the Cooma CBD with over 160 acts.

“I’ve been talking to businesses after this year’s event,” Allan says.

“A lot of them are saying it’s their best trading day of the year.

“The proof is that every year all our wonderful local businesses put up their hand to sponsor the event.”

Centennial Park Cooma is a focal point for the Championships
Centennial Park Cooma is a focal point for the Championships

Ten thousand dollars was shared among the winners this year adding a serious edge to a craft some see as worth nothing more than loose change.

“There are buskers that do it as their career,” Alan says.

“It’s not an easy career, but they really enjoy the freedom.”

Allan says the prize money is key in attracting artists to play but he believes that local talent needs to be looked after as that stiff competition lands.

Matilda Rose,  a 15-year-old country singer won the local category this year, scoring return plane tickets between Cooma and Sydney from Rex Airlines.

“I want to also mention the City of Queanbeyan Pipe and Drum Band, which is a 20 piece bagpipe band,” Allan says.

“They marched down Vale Street, straight to our war memorial, and they gave their first set there.

“It was a ‘hairs standing on the back of your neck’ kind of situation, it was really a moment to treasure.

“Then they played outside various pubs, they were busking, and they raised $500 for their group, they were over the moon,” Allan says.

The Queanbeyan Pipe and Drum Band
The Queanbeyan Pipe and Drum Band

Allan believes we should celebrate our buskers and the contribution they make to life and culture in regional towns especially, he’s hoping more country towns come on board with the Championships.

“We’ve kept this a regional festival,” Allan says.

“We think this is a great opportunity for regional centers to add something to their town.”

The program for the expanded format in 2017 is still being finalised, with Allan keen to speak with his partners Cooma Rotary.

At this stage, however, his thinking is that the South East Regional Final will be held on the first Saturday in November, followed by the National Final the next day – both held in Cooma not Canberra or another capital city where national finals are normally held.

Cooma – the town that built the Snowy Scheme is influencing Australia yet again.

*Copies of the Busk CD are available from the Cooma School of Music and by mail order.