Artical from the Sunday Times Newpaper.

Beneath the gutters and city streets of Paris is the new Bohemian quarter-a labyrinthine concert hall of 368 stations, six million daily commuters, and music, music, music, writes Bobby Jordan.

2004/06/06 12:00:00 AM

Notes from the underground


‘IT’S the way they throw money at me sometimes — it cuts the spirit of my song,” complains Paris Metro musician Bady Alhassane, eyes glinting like a pair of freshly minted euros.

“Every 50th person throws a 50c piece, every 70th person throws a euro; otherwise it’s just the tiny stuff. On a good day I’ll get about à20, but I’m generally playing for between 12 and 14. Sometimes I play until my fingers ache.

“One day a man came up to me while I was playing, and just stood there listening for a long time. When I finished, he clapped, gave me the thumbs-up and dropped a 100-franc note into my bag. I think he was American.”

No such luck so far this year for Alhassane, a lanky Malian with greying hair who is strumming his guitar in an office foyer close to the Bastille, about 40 minutes stroll from the Eiffel Tower. Dressed in a cheap sports jacket, stonewashed jeans and faded Nike sneakers, he is nervous. He is next in line at the Paris public transport company (RATP) annual audition; the prize: an official “badge” granting access to one of Europe’s biggest musical audiences — the Paris underground, labyrinthine concert hall of 368 stations and six million daily commuters.

“I didn’t succeed the first year — I only got my card at the third attempt,” says Alhassane, tuning his strings as he waits his turn.

The audition, usually spread out over six weeks, is a much sought-after chance to earn “official” minstrel status below the city’s celebrated pavements; a city of one thousand subterranean melodies.

In peak hours, between 500 and 1500 guitarists, saxophonists, drummers, violinists, rap artists, Peruvian flautists and free-style vocalists — to name but a few musical varieties — are harmonising within the 104-year-old underground tube network. However the RATP issues only about 150 musician badges per year; hence the anxious crowd before each audition. “It’s not legal to play without a badge,” explains Roberto Arciniega, one of a seven-member panpipe band also mingling in the RATP foyer.

“If you don’t have a badge the police come and give you a à30 fine, which becomes a à60 fine if you can’t pay straight away — that’s about what the whole band earns in a day.”

At 10am the audition begins. One by one, or group by group, musicians descend a spiral staircase into a small basement to perform in front of a five-member selection panel; musicians introduce themselves and get to work; panellists jot down notes or read through band biographies.

Band repertoires range from Hungarian folk dance to French jazz manouche, from duets and quartets to an entire symphony orchestra. Each performance is prefaced with a few words between band members and panellists.

“We have the entire world represented here,” beams Antoine Naso, the RATP “cultural attaché”.

“We try to have all the musical categories represented too, and there’re a lot of quality acts to choose from.”

The auditions are filmed, says Naso, to assist the panellists in their final decision and to promote the concept. The Paris system has already inspired other Metros to set up similar networks, including those in London, Tokyo and Rotterdam.

“For the artists it’s a source of income and a way to make interesting contacts,” says Naso, adding that some of the musicians featured in a CNN documentary about Metro musicians. “Unlike the unauthorised musicians, the badge allows them to play freely without being disturbed by police.”

For Naso and his colleagues, therefore, the musician project is one way to regulate an informal music economy that nevertheless remains hard to quantify; for every authorised musician or band there are several “buskers” — unauthorised groups or soloists who prefer to remain anonymous, in many cases because they lack valid French visas.

Whereas 50 years ago most musicians would have been gainfully employed in small bistros, brasseries or cafés, nowadays the City of Lights is also the city of upmarket clubs and restaurants with MTV and stereo sound systems.

The philosopher cafés where out-of-tune trombonists and existentialists would sing and sigh about the disharmonies of life are now supermarkets and tourist sushi bars. The musicians have gone underground.

Here, beneath the gutters and park benches, is the Bohemian quarter of old. Here, spread out across 14 lines, 201km of mostly underground vaulted tunnel track and several hundred kilometres of inter-leading passageways and staircases, is the place where you’re most likely to hear a grime-coated accordionist playing Edith Piaf or Pierre Bernac.

Here is where you’re most likely to meet the Edith Piaf or Pierre Bernac of tomorrow — because here is where they can dodge law-enforcers who sometimes dish out hefty fines to artists performing at street level.

But as much as it contains the echo of Bohemian Paris, the Metro is also the vibrating chorus of modern Europe; Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese, Spaniards — the folk songs swirling among the commuter shuffle or skipping from carriage to carriage tell the story of a melting-pot Europe, a globalising Europe, a Europe stuttering over a new tune, where anybody with a djembe drum or tambourine is trying to make themselves heard.

You don’t have to have a Latin accent to be European these days.

A case in point is double-bass player Farris Smith Jnr, a 53-year-old US immigrant who props himself up next to an underground fruit stall at Châtelet station, Line Four. Smith lugs his 20kg instrument daily halfway across Paris to play in front of a seething current of potential customers.

Immediately to his left is a public telephone; to his right is a moving walkway disgorging commuters at the rate of between à50 to à100 a day — “not a bad salary, tax-free, compared to what I’d make ‘up there’”, insists Smith, who always wears a waistcoat and “stingy-brim” hat, and who boasts a “following” of “regulars” — those who always drop something into his money basket: change, a meal-ticket, sometimes even fresh fruit.

“I love what I do — I really do. If I can bring a smile to somebody’s face, then that’s the most rewarding thing for me, and I’m not just saying that — that’s really what I get out of this more than anything else,” beams Smith.

When not playing in the Metro, Smith plays in a gospel band — for free; a devout Christian, he considers his underground job as a kind of devotional service or “pay-back” for daily “blessings” from above.

“I grew up in the era of Ashbury Road [in San Francisco], and the majority of my friends passed away — drugs or something. I was lucky. So I figured since I’ve made it this far, I might as well spend the second half of my life doing something I really want to do. And this is it.”

So far so good for Smith, who draws much attention with sonorous renditions of jazz hits such as Cheek to Cheek and Hit the Road, Jack. His sunshine demeanour occasionally earns unexpected perks, such as a Renault van — a gift from a pastor who claimed he was simply passing on “God’s Will”.

“Hell I couldn’t believe it when he handed over the keys,” says Smith, “but he absolutely insisted, so, well, now I have a van.”

In addition to “corridor performers” like Smith, the Metro also serves as a chorus relay for a community of illegal musicians who work the 3400-plus trains.

Each of the 14 lines forms a separate musicians’ community, each with a central meeting “platform” or departure point where musicians socialise before embarking — a group at a time — on a half-hour “circuit” to the end of the line and back, during which time they work their way from one carriage to the next.

Most groups aim for an average of around 10 circuits a day.

Though loosely organised, the basic system functions according to an unspoken etiquette, and newcomers slot into the routine.

Informal “assembly points” for each line are both a place to relax and a security measure, allowing the group to exchange information on the whereabouts of “les controlleurs” — gendarmes or RATP officials (dubbed the Men in Green due to their green uniforms) who patrol the Metro daily, dishing out spot fines to unlicensed musicians or those caught playing inside the trains.

The musician “grapevine” tries to keep fines to a minimum. The result is an elaborate game of cat and mouse, in full swing by mid-morning and played out across a moving, underground field of somnambulant office workers, tourists and high-school students.

At République, a juncture for Lines Three, Five, Eight, Nine and Eleven, musicians gather on the southbound Line Five to Place d’Italie — a relative safe haven compared with the more heavily policed lines through the heart of the CBD.

“It is more tranquil here — not as many controllers,” says 20-year-old Milen [a pseudonym], one of four brothers who have worked in pairs at least three times a week along Line Five since leaving Yugoslavia two years ago.

Says Milen: “If we didn’t do this we would have to be robbers, and we aren’t robbers. But this is difficult — we have to try and make people smile, but sometimes it is difficult to smile. Some days we have to take something to be able to smile. What we do in the trains is psychological.”

Constant police harassment is a major headache, says 18-year-old Ratko [also a pseudonym], the youngest of the brothers who plays a drum accompaniment to his elder brother’s vocals.

“Yesterday they ripped out the wires of my amplifier — they’re not nice at all. The day I get a better job I’ll throw away my drum, that’s for sure. This is not for pleasure, this is so that we can eat.”

Unlike most other musicians, the brothers are fortunate enough to still live with their parents who receive a refugee subsidy from the French government. In the Metro they form a good-natured alliance with the more veteran Line Five musicians, most of whom are Romanian.

Guitarist Titi from Bucharest says there is “zero” work in Bucharest: “Especially for musicians — that’s why we all came here,” he says. His partner, a short-set accordionist who carries a crumpled photo of his late brother in his top pocket, nods his head and throws up his arms: “Got to play,” he says through a wry smile.

Zaza, 32, a French-speaking Algerian and self-appointed spokesman for Line Five, claims to have invented a new style during his six years underground.

Says Zaza: “I’m unique. I worked with another group before, but they stole money from me, and they drank a lot. They weren’t professional. I prefer to work with these guys,” — he points to the brothers — “they’re my group now. I’ve taught them from the beginning.”

And so it goes across the screeching, gyrating, harmonising underbelly of the world’s most romantic city, capital of moonlight serenades and neon carriage rock, testimony to a chorus line that refuses to fade, no matter how deep it must hide away.

The Paris Metro, where one man’s loose change feeds the melody of tomorrow, where steel sings in subway stops and Mozart squeals from illegal amplifiers beneath a city hollowed of song.

“If I come at 9am I get bigger money — bigger coins,” says Smith, packing up his double-bass at the start of rush-hour in Châtelet station. “Between 11 and three, I get smaller stuff — the brown coins; then in the evening I get bigger things again.

“But it’s not all about money,” he concludes, with a smile.

Like musical notes slipped down from his strings, Smith’s coins lie scattered at his feet in raindrops of bronze and silver colour.

He gathers them up and goes home.

 

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