Musical notes from the underground
January 14, 2011 9:45 PM   Subscribe

Where can you see jazz1 shows,2 doo-wop performances,3 a vaudevillian dance act,4 found object5 percussion duos,6 opera concerts,7 international and intergalactic folk music gigs,8 and a pink gorilla playing the bass9? All for $2.25?

On the New York City subway system, of course.

Busking underground in New York's labyrinthine subway system is completely legal, though there are restrictions. Officially, there are to be no performances on board subway cars, amplification is disallowed, and musicians must audition to play in the most desired, high-trafficked locations. The MTA's Music Under New York program administers these auditions, and among their past musicians is Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz, whose blog is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of a subway performer.

For musicians, more resources can be found at City Lore's Guide for Subway Musicians (note: last revision was 2004), and Buskers Advocate. Folks might also enjoy the 2006 documentary Downtown Locals.

And for New Yorkers, if you see a notable street performer aboveground, go ahead and contribute to omniguy's excellent UndercoverNY [MeFi Projects], which includes a handy map for finding your neighborhood busker.

And not to be forgotten: the breakdancers [NYTimes]

1. Moon Hooch [Bandcamp]
2. Yaz Band [website]
3. Acapella Soul [interview]
4. Little Michael Jackson [aka Alex Sotomayor]
5. Larry Wright [Wikipedia, documentary clip]
6. The Family [request for info]
7. Tao Qi [bio]
8. Nathan Stodola, The Renegade Accordionist [BB, PBS]
9. XYLOPHKS [website]
posted by jng (11 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mind the idea of subway performers, but I sure do wish they'd travel a bit. I can see why they might camp out at a good location, but hearing the same songs that I don't really like anyway at 6AM every day gets old pretty quickly. And could someone even remotely talented please visit the 81st street B/C stop, please? You'd think such a high traffic station would attract a higher caliber of performer but no such luck...
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:25 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, NYC Subway Girl's blog, which has all sorts of video interviews with subway artists.
posted by jng at 11:30 PM on January 14, 2011

From Germany the "Little Michael Jackson" link gets me this: "This video contains content from Sony Music Entertainment. It is not available in your country." Am I missing something fabulous?
posted by creasy boy at 11:46 PM on January 14, 2011

This is a nice, well done post.
I enjoyed it. thanks
posted by quazichimp at 1:40 AM on January 15, 2011

"This video contains content from Sony Music Entertainment. It is not available in your country."

He might have been a predator paedophile, but by God we'll protect that revenue stream!

Am I missing something fabulous?

A midget dancing to Michael Jackson's Beat It.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:37 AM on January 15, 2011

An enclosed public space such as a subway station confines many different people with many varying attitudes at any given time toward noise, distraction, music, or peace. Everyone has a different taste in music. Everyone has a different mental agenda as they wait for the subway. Some would like to read. Some would like to meditate. Some would like to hear live music. There is no reason, however, why the tastes of this latter group should be accommodated over the desires of the other groups or individuals. We all paid the same fares. The very essence of public civility would demand that subway stations be a neutral territory when it comes to something about which there as so many strong feelings and differing tastes as live music. New York City is a remarkable example of how diverse people with a multitude of clashing goals can live together and pursue happiness without too much conflict. But it all arises out of consideration for other people. Few things on earth are less considerate than forcing strangers to listen to music against their will, or at least in the face of their indifference. People in New York are able to live together because they respect each others' small but precious personal space. Invading that space with unnecessary noise is a very un-New York thing to do. Busking is bullying. It's assault.

Busking is a hick's idea of what the city should be like.
posted by Faze at 5:14 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

People in New York are able to live together because they respect each others' small but precious personal space. Invading that space with unnecessary noise is a very un-New York thing to do.

I can see your point, but it's not mine. Ever since the Village Voice and New York Press went to crap, (the readily available free papers relied on for something to occupy me on the platform,) I welcome any kind of underground content provider. Every now and then, there's something truly memorable.

The Chinese guy whose been playing Er Hu on the west side 1/9,2,3 for decades is like family, albeit a somewhat boring uncle. There's a drummer on the east side, calls himself Alaska Mike or something like that, I'd pay money to see him. The occasional crackhead secretly syncing to a prerecorded electric guitar track, using elastic cotton strings, is pure New York.

Perhaps the difference is that I rarely use the subway at peak hours. When I do, each and every person, busking or not, annoys me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:33 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Caution: "Saw Lady"'s blog has automatic music.

Back when I was learning the saw in the late 90s, Natalia Paruz used to spam everyone and anyone who had anything to do with musical saws on the internet. She just wouldn't give up with the link requests. Very annoying.
posted by scruss at 7:02 AM on January 15, 2011

When it was first built, the city was a beautiful, sterile place. It was a massive tribute to the coordination of thousands, from the bright ideas of hundreds. They were the architects and planners, designing civilization out of the dust, constructed with the skills of the construction crews. Then came the business people, filling the structural voids, the office workers to make the streets busy with things to do and places to be. The city bustled, bright and vibrant. And it was quiet, like a silent film showing everyone the potential of the future. Brakes squeaked, but quietly. Greetings were given, hands shaken, in the most civilized and proper of ways. Even the construction noises that once rang through the city were mere ghosts, echoes heard from the still-expanding periphery. You could hear yourself think. Most importantly, no one intruded in your sphere of silence. Because silence was a gift to everyone, noise a violation upon mankind.

But then came the country-folks, with their odd notions of what the city should be. The moving pictures had spread far and wide, and taken with them the lies of the movie producer. "If the city is so alive, why isn't it talking? Why no boisterous singing?" the producer asked? So the script was re-written, the story of the city became a musical. The gift of silence was replaced with a crude attempt at making the story more interesting. So the rubes thought the city should sing, and they brought their own songs to the city.

Some simply visited, humming to themselves on the train into the city, or speaking quickly and in excited tones to their family. But those noises were silenced by the civility of the city, because those intrusions were few and without friends in the city. Quick looks silenced the chatter into murmur.

But the country was a big place, full of lively people who seemed to be made of song and dance, some rhythm that had been ironed out in the building of the city. And the people of the city didn't miss it. More country-mice arrived, and now some stayed. They brought their notion of what the city should be, and this time it stuck, in dark corners and quiet alleys. The country-folk opened bars with pianos and singers, created little spaces for music to live. The city held firm, keeping the public spaces quiet, but those little musical spaces leaked. Toes still tapped as they left the security of the bar, voices raised above the normal quiet, and someone broke out in song. It was late, people laughed awkwardly, "it's because they are not in their right mind, they are tipsy, it'll be quiet in the morning."

It wasn't. The music spaces attracted more music, but there was no more inside, confined space for the music. So it stuck to some outside places. And temporary audiences grew around those spots. Not everyone enjoyed the beat of these new drummers, but what could they do? Say "stop having so much fun"? Fun wasn't a problem in the city, it was the noise. But when the noise was part of fun, what do you do? Some shouted at the drummers, but that only added more noise. Sometimes the drummers would move elsewhere, other times they would drum louder, gathering a larger crowd. However it had happened, it couldn't un-happen. Different drummers had come to the city, and the gift of silence was no more. But in it's place there was music. More noise, more chaos, but also more music.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:16 AM on January 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Invading that space with unnecessary noise is a very un-New York thing to do. Busking is bullying. It's assault.

Have you ever lived in New York? I only ask because busking IS an integral part of the subway culture, particularly certain subway locations.
posted by iamck at 3:43 PM on January 15, 2011

Isn't a single-ride $2.50 these days?

It's assault.
Well, to be fair, assault is also an integral part of subway culture, particularly at certain subway locations.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:25 PM on January 15, 2011

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