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The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

This article was first published on CLUAS in May 2002

The Sounds From Beneath (part 2 of 2)

More musical movements underground in Madrid

Some metro musicians still see street music as an artistic manifestation of such activist traditions. "I am a political activist," says Bill Dimes. That's his stage name. This forty-something guitarist - flautist is "passing through" on his an "neverending tour" which began back at home in Montreal, Canada. Dimes been trying to develop a new sense of community where he goes. In Madrid he likes to look for like-minded people in the Retiro. Disillusioned with the mainstream politics of the world, he searches out like minded people. "What I believe in stands for self-esteem, self-expression, self-identity. I want to make a political statement, to engage a basic human right."
After the '60s, says Dimes, "a whole generation became street performers as part of an alternative lifestyle and a political statement. There was a whole new reason to be on the street. It wasn't just a desperate act, it was a political lifestyle."

Apart from several of his own creations, Dimes? repertoire is made up of
folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. "I consider myself a cultural activist," says Dimes. "I focus on the musical aspect of activism. Remember, there's a great historical connection between music and political activism."

The Montreal man wrestles with the strange requirements of subterranian music. Playing in the subway "has allure," he says. "It is both a hostile and a welcoming environment." With each new train comes a new audience, a new challenge, he says, and "it's carthartic to me."

Dimes resents the novices he terms "quick buck" artists. They play in choice spots but can often alienate audiences with repetitive, roughly hewn sets. Dimes himself moves between stations, playing a particular stop once every two weeks at the most. He's developed his repetoire slowly but thoroughly, a method he puts down to his lack of formal training. Moreover, he searches for songs which will "mean something personally, something I can identify with or build empathy with. It's only that kind of song I can perform as well as I need to perform my music."

Subway musicians find themselves at the raw cutting edge of a city, down with the drunks and the in-transit prostitutes, the beggars and the addicts. Sadness creases one commuters face even while an out-of-school boy nearby laughs irrepressibly. Still, there's redemption too. The flinty streets of New York have given birth to and proven the worth of several music types of African Americans, like rap and hip-hop. Madrid medley metro musicians play a huge variety of styles but whatever their genre, musicians have a positive effect on audiences in hectic, congested urban environments like that of the metro. In his book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" urban researcher and planner William H. Whyte talks of a process of "triangulation" in urban spaces, in which street performers and musicians provide a bridge between people, and thus "make a city more amicable." Music indeed soothes the savage street.

One man buidling bridges with his harmonies is Diego, an Argentinian well versed in the dynamics of early jazz. "I only play the early stuff" he insists. The 60 - something, accompanied by a younger man, Franz, from Chile, alternates between clarinet and saxophone. I'm discovering new tunes all the time." And as for almost any music created after 1940, "We don't touch it," he says.

Diego has been in town for quite a while and once played in a group. "When the other guys left, I thought if I could just learn to sing a few more songs, I could stay. Besides, I like the audience in the subway. It's intimate and usually friendly and you're close to people." His red leather face and watery eyes hint at a man who's seen the best and the worst of the world. His choice of music collaborates my suspicions. "Newer music is about being confessional and self-aggrandizing. I like stories about real things that happen to people. And I choose tunes that have a peaceful, personal element to them."

Music researchers like William Whyte have written that the captured audience in subways can be an attractive and lucrative audience for good players.
"Musicians do better in the subways," says Village Voice writer Stephen Baird, himself a one-time subway player. "It is a more confined space, with a good flow of audience" says Baird. If you've got an unamplified acoustic sound, maybe a jazz sound, people find that unassuming and gentle, a contrast to the blast of the trains and they'll respond to that because it soothes them... The hardest thing of course is to keep playing the music even when your songs are completely drowned out. You have to look like you're trying hard too."

Guillermo is a classically trained Hungarian, a concert pianist and a tracks-stopping violinist to these ears. He gives classes to students in their houses, working off a mobile phone and adverts pinned to shop notice boards. His illegal status doesn't allow anything else. "I play here when I'm not teaching. I live in a house of seven people and the others get annoyed with too much playing. Here nobody bothers me and I can make a little money too". According to Guillermo an experienced musician can eventually dismiss the surrounding sounds as just a particular background noise of a venue. Making money can be harder. "There are times when people walk by, sometimes almost trip over you in the rush. I could be playing four or five trains go by without me making a penny. You go through those times, and you have to be prepared for that, you have to toughen up. I still prefer it much more here than playing on the streets, which I did for a short while when I first came to Spain. It's fine during the summer in the seaside towns but there's too much noise and dirt on the streets of the big city."

Metro musicians often do play until midnight and later, till 2a.m aboard the last trains. This can be one of the more lucrative times of the day, as passengers are often more willing to part with cash when they're on they're tired and merry. Like other professionals, metro musicians generally divide their day into three or four shifts. There's a gentlemanly understanding among the long-timers over territory and hours in the most lucrative spots says Bill Dimes but recent arrivals pay no heed to such codes. "They're young and keen, usually from Romania, Russia and Latin America. They often play well, though often not, but they want every penny that's out there. I've tried communicating with them about this but it's pointless, they won't listen." To add to their woes, metro musicians, says Dimes, despair at the TV screens recently installed in stations, although they're grateful that city authorities decided not to put audio on the sets.

It's a Wednesday afternoon and the latest 4 train trundles into Arguelles station. In a few moments it's ready to pull back out for the northern extremes of the city. Emilio has his guitar ready and his tune for this ride chosen. The Ecuadorian is one of the braver bunch who leave the platforms and play in the trains. The transport company's security guards won't be amused if they spot him. His younger sister will play the tambourine and collect in her cloth tie-die purse whatever money they're offered." On the street, you have more control, and it's safer" he admits, "... in the metro you're stuck and can get caught. So you have to adjust, and you're playing can even be better... I like the sound of trains... I get in a mood..." In the underground below Madrid, when you hear Emilio's soft delivery of an ageing Ecuadorian love song, you might want to enter your own space and imagine the easy chug of a steam train, a bottle of rum and good company as you slumber into a balmy Amazonian night....

Mark Godfrey