sounderground-nyc-busker-feature-image.jpg Jos Contràz

Cosmopolitan to the extreme, New York is an icon for freedom and modernity. Living up to this fame, street music has plenty of room to further enrich the culture in the city that never sleeps.

Known for its unbiased mixing of ingredients from all corners of the globe, the Big Apple is also egalitarian when it comes to its street musicians. They all have more than enough space to showcase their talents to passers-by.

For starters, there is a little of everything in the 24 subway lines and 465 stations distributed throughout the city's five boroughs; things people recognize at least by name. Works of art, display boxes for pictures, posters, etc. All matching the design and architecture of the burrows, bringing culture to the daily operation of urban transportation. 

Music also has a guaranteed space, and it could not be otherwise. In 1985 a pilot program was created to regulate the underground music in the city and avoid disarray; shortly thereafter, in 1987, it became law. Music Under New York, or MUNY, determines the 25 locations where selected musicians take turns performing.

The musician selection always takes place in spring and is an event in and of itself, practically an American Idol. The candidates must fill out and submit a form, along with a sample of their work, for prior evaluation.  From the received submissions, about 60 will be selected each year for an audition before an evaluation board at the iconic and extremely busy mezzanine of the Grand Central Station,  as shown on the video diary for the street performing duo Dagmar:

The presentations are screened by musicians, industry professionals, subway representatives and local community artistic organization members to select those that will be able to perform for money from passers-by -- an activity that is otherwise illegal in the subway system.  As a matter of fact, performances are out of the question inside the trains; they're only allowed in the stations.

Even so, street performers have little to complain about:  legend has it that enforcement is not strict, and even unauthorized musicians can perform, as long as they obey specific rules and don’t use the space reserved for the official street performers (you can learn more and listen to a sample of their work here).

There was another interesting story with the launch of an Oasis album: the English band went to New York and personally taught some street performers how to play exclusive songs from the album, which then echoed through the galleries of Manhattan.

This is one of countless episodes that are part of the long history of New York’s underground musicians. In this world, comprised of Andean flutes, Senegalese koras, flamenco guitars and even power saws, there is also room for the African American music so typical of the U.S. Not to mention jazz and blues festivals that take place from time to time, or even the unexpected recording studio aimed exclusively at subway performers.

For these and other reasons, riding under the city leaves nothing to be desired to the classic yellow cabs:  it's a choice that can be more affordable and has the added bonus of an unexpected soundtrack along the way, as in this presentation that made us think that sometimes life can be a musical.

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