Subway transit is one of the most important parts of the New York experience. At those tunnels under the earth, you can have a sense of the true spirit of the city and just looking, silently, we could imagine the thousands of stories that unfold in the capital of the world, New York.
It was a regular afternoon of the summer of 2006 and, as always, I was walking through the tunnel that leads from the F to the 1 train going to the Bronx. At that very moment I noticed my steps were moving encompassing an old melody… “Chiquitita you and I cry, but the sun is still in the sky and shinning above you…” Is the sound of a harmonic and I realize that I’m not the only one moving with the rhythm; I smile and think it’s just the universal language of music.
Behind that almost perfect moment is the reality of hundreds of artists that are improving the subway experience. They make of this ordinary moment a very particular one, which makes the visit of thousands of tourists a wonderful one and breaks a smile on any given newyorker despite how hard was the workday.
That’s how this article was born, which I previously published on the magazine I worked at the time, out of the curiosity for knowing what lays behind those melodies. Who are they and what they do when they are up there, at the street level.
I met Vicente Chuqui, an Ecuadorian who was living in the United States for about eight years and told me that part of his life is spend in the subway. Him, and other eight members are part of the group called Grupo Manantial that had recorded serveral CDs with varied music, including Andes rythms and versions of popular international songs that attract almost any audience.
For Chuqui, making music in the subway is only part of his day. Like many other Latino immigrants he works in construction or “any other gig that comes up, you know,” he said. “We are a group and I come with my partner when I don’t have other jobs. We usually are given a 3-hour permit and we take advantage to sell our CDs,” cloncluded Chuqui.
Another -tragicomic- event happens inside one train wagon. It’s peak time and many passengers are standing. All of the sudden, a man salutes with the notes of an old saxo. The out-of-tune sound make some look at him as ridiculous, even looking down with disdain.
However, this artist has his act well planned and not exactly to lose his audience. He played a bit more and yelled “I’m leaving, I’m going, but I’m taking Bush with me!” Faces change. Smiles and laughs loosen up the environment and the dollars start coming out of bags and wallets.
I also smile and think with sadness that this artist probably sleeps in the streets, or in the train wagons. His life is spend in the surroundings. There is nothing but this, his life is the subway.
Despite of his reality, he brings joy to the day of the passerbys and for them, he only represents this moment of entertainment within their fast-paced routine. They get off the train and go back to their frown.