Few people who shuffle past Dean Whaitiri recognise him.

He dresses casually: T-shirt and jeans, perhaps a baseball cap to keep the sun off. Now in his 70s, it's a lifetime since Whaitiri's lyrical playing graced Howard Morrison's band. He knows the importance of maintaining his chops, though, which is why he blows his saxophone every weekend at Takapuna market.

Whaitiri makes a few bucks but it's nowhere near a living.

"For me it's about keeping my fingers exercised," he says. "I love doing it; I'm not looking for fame or money."


He doesn't need the cash. Whaitiri's a successful businessman, selling real estate in Auckland's swanky inner suburbs. Some of the people who brush by the saxophonist may have bought a house from him, not that they'd know it.

You'd never confuse Kara Gordon for anything but a professional musician. He arrives to our interview, two metres tall and 30 minutes late, sporting a Thin Lizzy T-shirt, a vintage-look military jacket reminiscent of the one worn by his hero Jimi Hendrix, and a black wide-brimmed hat boasting a peacock feather in its brim. Every pore screams rock star.

Like Whaitiri, Gordon's look doesn't tell the whole story. Yes, he plays snarling blues-based rock guitar — he's considered one of this country's very best — and when the weather's right he sets up his rig in Vulcan Lane and entertains passers-by, but he also has a Master's degree from one of the world's most prestigious universities, Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Dean Whaitiri wants to help street musicians become more professional so he's organised From the Street to the Stage.
Dean Whaitiri wants to help street musicians become more professional so he's organised From the Street to the Stage.

Both men star in the Auckland Fringe Festival's From the Streets to the Stage, a showcase featuring some of the city's finest street musicians, including jazz violinist Nick Jones and Rewi McLay, a funky singer-guitarist who sings in English and te reo Maori. The gig is Whaitiri's brainchild.

"The idea is to identify the talent that's roaming our streets but getting no recognition. My idea was to find these guys and encourage them to become more professional," Whaitiri says, ever the entrepreneur.

"They're very gifted but they don't have a business structure in place."

The show is at Galatos. The legendary venue is owned by Whaitiri and his wife, Andrea, who bought it seven years ago, saving it from developers who wanted to knock it down and build apartments.

Everyone's played Galatos. Whaitiri says he hosted Lorde's early live shows, before she was famous. ("She was a nervous wreck. Twelve months later she's international.") In May, it presents LA Guns, the band that contributed several members to Gun N' Roses. Gordon once opened for GNR's guitarist, Slash. Circle of life.

Gordon's also opened for Ozzy Osbourne and Elton John, and played with Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes. He went to Berklee aiming to study jazz guitar, inspired by his father's music collection.

"At school, kids were talking about The Smurfs and how great The Snorks were, and I was like, 'Yeah, but did you see that thing on [jazz guitarists] Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Al Di Meola?'," he says.

Gordon started busking out of necessity: "I've been in situations around the world when I've been hard up for money but I've had a guitar, so I'd busk to make a bit of money so I could eat that day."

For Wayne Hapi, a soulful singer-guitarist also taking part in From the Streets to the Stage, busking is a full-time job. He goes out most days, his favourite spots being in front of the Gucci store on Queen St or by the Atrium on Elliott St, where he plays crowd-pleasers by The Eagles, The Platters and the old Motown stars.

"Music is memories. When I play and someone walks past, it'll spark a memory and get their emotions going. People say, 'I haven't heard that for so long!' It's a two-way thing, because I feed off the energy they're giving me."

Wayne Hapi says performing in front of people is an awesome feeling. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Wayne Hapi says performing in front of people is an awesome feeling. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Unlike Whaitiri, he does occasionally get recognised as the guy who gave the searing performance as gang leader Ariki in James Napier Robertson's The Dark Horse. The part earned Hapi a nomination for best supporting actor in the 2014 New Zealand Film Awards. He's got a new movie out, the faith-based feature Broken. Hapi was hand-picked by director Tarry Mortlock, who spent weeks scouring the Auckland CBD to find his man.

"I love to sing, I love to play, and when I'm performing in front of people it gives me an awesome feeling," says Hapi. "People sit on the seats and listen for ages; they'll eat their lunch and give me a koha. It's different to performing on stage; with busking people go past and they might donate something and then carry on."

Catching and keeping people's attention is the toughest part of busking, says Gordon.

"I've got a lot of respect for buskers. When you've got a gig on stage, people are there to see the act, they've probably had a few drinks, you've won them over already. But when you're busking, people are walking by, they're dead sober, you've got to win them over to put some money in your pocket. That's the test: can you win over sober people?"

What: From the Streets to the Stage, Auckland Fringe Festival
Where and When: Galatos, Tomorrow (Thursday, February 22)