A Universe in a city with music underground

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By Maria Rosalie Zerrudo

Yagubyob sa Bulkan

Saturday, January 4, 2014


ART is our original voice. We do not want our creative ideas to be wasted by not following the creative nature of an individual to express him/herself. One thing I want the children to experience is for them to discover the “eyes” that can see beauty. Then poetry can be born, music will be written, canvass shall be painted and new inventions will be made. There will be more stories after sunsets or before sunrise.

Karaoke culture

One of the basic expressions of a human soul is singing. Filipinos are not only known to have golden voice, but also for having an invasive though inclusive karaoke culture. The Japanese invented a singing machine minus the vocals, which somehow became a novelty in teaching people tolerance.

In 2004, Daisuke Inoue was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for inventing karaoke, for people to learn to tolerate one another. This has eventually evolved as a second nature to Filipino gatherings or even in the most remote village with a sari-sari store for an afternoon delight.

The showmanship of Filipinos as spontaneous people has turned this karaoke event into a serious entertainment yielding professional singers. Once only in close door boxes of restaurants, the karaoke has become public engagements in every street corner, which has already turned into noise pollution in the community. In the absence of these machines, Filipinos sing with a guitar as casual as they can during the “tuba” (coconut wine) drinking sessions or playing cover songs and singing together as friends or in family occasions.

Christmas carol

The earliest pagan practice thousands of years ago in Europe was singing Christmas carols which literally meant to dance to something and to sing praise and joy which was a practice during the shortest day in December.

Little did I know that my favorite saint, St. Francis of Assisi did his nativity play in 1200 where people sing songs or canticles to tell the story. Most of these divine art practice where often seen in churches or royal courts before. Being musicians were highly regarded as dignified and respected profession. Music was only performed in the church or for the high society such as the rich, the noble or the royal courts.

Skills handed down by tradition

I have seen many Asians performing in the subway but not yet a Filipino. It would be an interesting search for my own cultural flavor planted in the city streets of New York.

In the Philippines, being a trained artist originally is either a privilege of a royal lineage, a skill handed down by sacred tradition or bestowed upon by the spirits world or as a responsibility of culture bearer who makes their art as a way of living and also to earn a living.

The colonial influences have also made guitar-playing community very common in villages. Harana sang to win a woman’s heart or to entertain neighbors coming from our Chicano blood and spirit became a ritual in the past. The Western influenced left a strong greasy influence to our contemporary music scenes with thick American touch in most of the cover bands. There are a number of original and non-conforming musicians who are thriving in the underground scene and have established a following in the world of non-commercial artists. It is a world of its own where new genres emerge and artists keep on reinventing and challenging themselves as they make the audience engage with their work.

Public spaces for musicians

On my travel, I have seen many but New York City is one of the richest street theatrical music scenes in the world, combining many genres with hundreds of styles and forms combined.

The propensity of musicians’ crowd following in the subway may vary depending on the age group, style, race and genre. Some have very strong reputation as a crowd drawer, others perform in a variety of locations, some less accessible leaving them less visible in the corner, perhaps unnoticed and underexposed.

Some musicians conveniently place themselves in strategic public spaces where people pass by such as subways and parks. One of the benefits of New York City is always having something happening in every street corner and to say the least, I was as always awed by the amount of talented musicians that literally entertain the community.

My first experience of the street performance in New York was in the subway. It was a surreal scene for me with classical music, and cello blending in with the noise of the train. I thought this is the most beautiful gift musicians can give to people coming from a very exhausted work day in that stinking dark crowded tunnel of dust and darkness.

‘The Music Under New York’

The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Music under the New York program consists of a roster of more than 222 musicians, with styles ranging from gypsy funk to West African kora, from classical cellist to country and jazz music.

One-day auditions are held every spring for 60 new musicians. It is a feast of talented musicians passing by or living in New York City that can easily fill-in concert halls, bars and pubs in their nightly shows.

The subways have been transformed into living spaces where people share a diversity of world cultures. The streets of New York and the public spaces (such as the subway) are the most intensified interactive spaces, where millions of people come and go every day.

In the documentary made by Freda (1990) Gabriel Schuben of MTA, in her interview, mentioned that “Music Under New York (MUNY) which started in 1985 as a pilot program became a strong program in 1987 with 15 locations. There have been a lot of expansions that they auditioned new artists in December. The advantage for musicians to be in this program is it gives them designated place to play that has been approved by the police and the other operating divisions of the transit authority.”

The subway has been my daily refugee with world-class musicians. This is one of the best things that one cannot miss to experience when in New York.

In its website, MTA (2011) Arts for Transit, features; “classical violinists, Cajun cellists, jazz ensembles, bluesmen, Latin guitarists, opera and folk singers are just a few of the MUNY performers in the subway and train stations contributing to the music culture of New York City.

Since 1985, MTA Arts for Transit has managed the MUNY program has been presenting quality music to the commuting public. At present, more than 200 soloists and groups participate in MUNY providing over 150 weekly performances at 25 locations throughout the transit system.”

Sensory overload

They are pathways of overwhelming exchange and sensory overload. On the other hand, they are a wealth of details, spontaneous resources of living archives and walking think tanks coming from diverse backgrounds and professions.

People access, traverse and experience these public spaces as they become part of the routinely role playing and negotiating, from one train to the next, where people intimately share their personal spaces voluntarily and intentionally.

The variety of personal encounters is a rich texture of individuality, breaking and making lines to confront order and disorder. Amid the chaos, the musicians break the patterns by creating a space to feel and experience a universal oneness through music where at the end of the day, they realize that they are so much more similar than different from one another.

My daily encounter with New York streets and public spaces was an interesting cultural gourmet that fed my soul. The public encounters were powerful experiences of my anonymous existence among millions of others in a crowded subway, where all of a sudden the music connects strangers.

In many instances, I could not stop myself from talking to the musicians, or writing their names, and googling them when I returned home. One became a Facebook friend at an instant. The ordinary becomes extraordinary and the nameless becomes personal.

I discovered another New York’s strong underground community of R&B, and rock musicians under the name UMO Music formed by Joe Budnick who could often be found playing next to Colin Huggins dubbed himself ‘the crazy piano guy,’ a classical pianist who plays with pride at his grand piano; both are regular players in Washington Square Park together with the other musicians.

Another community rock tandem of Heth and Jet rocks the subways on the upper platform while the strings from South of Spain serenade the lower platform. Bucket drummer Ray King evolved from a church setting to a subway orchestra. I regularly encountered a cello virtuoso, Sean with a twist of tribal, jazz and classical; a fusion of world harmonies reverberates and softens nameless faces and greasy subway walls.

A female street performer, Bibi (as cited in Freda, 1990) said in a video interview “First time I did it was in New Orleans that was a lot easier, people really stopped. They ate it all up they wanted to hear it more. Here in New York people are very cynical and very much in a hurry. In the subway thy will stop because they have nothing better to do, and in the park they are hanging out anyway. But I haven’t had any look on the street.”

I noticed that of New York too, when there was just so much to do and so much to see, sometimes one might feel invisible for nothing surprises the people there anymore.

Musicians as spiritual encounters

Musicians are my spiritual encounters in the streets, when people are so separated in a tight small space. As I walked up the platform of the subway, another musician, Giovanni with his classical guitar, resonated the tempos of my feet that tangoed inside my stomach. The Saw Lady brought me to the present when I no longer saw the people existed next to me. Even in a noisy subway, a classical African Kora transformed my day into a dreamland.

Music is a powerful cultural vehicle. Listening to music is a process of cultural development as part of total human development.

Music carries with it every emotion and emancipation that can cure the sick, bring us back our innocence or make us love.

In the life of a musician, you are in constant battle with your ‘muse’ as you recreate your own world to give a shape, form, tune or melody to a feeling, experience or thoughts. Many great ideas are born in the subway platforms. Many good connections are made and many visions are woven and relationships reunited.

The constant yearning for self-expression and self-actualization is the driving force for the musician to interpret the world according to his beingness. As a nucleus of consciousness, the musician carries within himself a vision transported in his music and art. The more he exposes himself to the world, the bigger is his influence to building a critical mass through his everyday interactions and relationships.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 05, 2014.

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