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Striving to make music under the NYC streets

New York's subway musicians toil a long way from the bright lights and adulation of the big-time music business but, for many of them, that's just fine.
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Straining to make his music heard over the roar of trains far below the traffic-clogged streets of Manhattan, singer-songwriter Theo Eastwind is a long way from the bright lights and adulation of the big-time music business.

That’s just fine with him.

“I’m not in it for any big money or anything. I’m just living off it as an individual,” the boyish and unassuming Eastwind told between songs.

“[If] you have a talent, if you have a passion, then you can still come down here and you can still do it,” he said. “Not because you’re going to be rich. Not because you’re going to be a superstar. ... It’s because you wanna do it.”

Eastwind is one of more than 100 official subway musicians performing in at least 25 locations throughout the 468-station New York subway system. Scores of other musicians perform unofficially.

Although musicians have been playing the New York subway system for decades, a transit-sponsored program was established in 1987 to spruce up the city’s subway stations and make travelers’ journeys more enjoyable.

Each spring, a panel of judges determines which acts are accepted into the program.

“This gives them a way to be organized, and it gives them a space to play so that they’re not fighting for a little corner,” a Music Under New York spokeswoman said.

“American Idol” it is not.

For many tourists in the Big Apple, however, subway musicians add local color to what can be a frustrating attempt to navigate the city’s labyrinthine transit system. For New Yorkers, live tunes can make their stuffy commutes a little more pleasant.

A modern-day ‘troubadour’
Eastwind, who came to New York from his native Austria a decade ago, turned to performing underground when the bakery that brought him to this country folded. He now regularly plays throughout the subway system, on the street and in local clubs.

With a wispy goatee, well-worn t-shirt and light hair peaking our from beneath a battered cap, he looks — and acts — the part of a street musician perfectly.

On a recent afternoon at 68th Street-Hunter College Station, his open guitar case collecting money in front of him, Eastwind contemplated his role as a musician.

“I would say that underground musicians, or even street musicians generally [are] a continuation of the culture of troubadours,” or early singer-songwriters in Europe, he said.

But musicians playing to the nearly 3 million daily commuters on New York’s subway face a special set of challenges.

“Playing in the subways is so difficult because you have people who didn’t come down here to see you; they want to catch the train,” Eastwind said. “And to catch them, you’ve got a window of maybe 10-20 seconds to get someone’s interest, and then if there’s no train, to keep their interest. … You’ve gotta sculpture yourself around what people like.”

Musically diverse
Arts are nothing new in New York's subway.

The system’s Arts for Transit program tries to bring arts exhibitions into the underground. Recently, a mural by world-renown artist Roy Lichtenstein was unveiled at the 42nd Street Station.

Heru Ptah began hawking his first, self-published novel on the subway, before an MTV Books director bought a copy while riding the A train in February 2003 and convinced MTV to purchase the rights to it.

But the sheer diversity of musicians plying their trade under the streets of New York makes it perhaps one of the most vibrant performance spaces in the country.

While some musicians, like Eastwind, seem perfectly content playing underground, others see it as a stepping stone and still others do it just to make ends meet.

The Susan Cagle Band, which describes its sound as “ethnic rock” — mixing pop and light rock with Caribbean influences — has set its sights high.

Set up at Union Station recently, the band — consisting of siblings Susan, 24, John, 22, Jesse, 18, Caroline, 16, and Ivan, 14 — attracted a crowd of travelers who took the time to stop, sign up to the group’s email lists and listen to the camera-friendly band.

“We often have people come up to us and say, ‘Well, I’ve known you and seen you play since you were this high,’” Susan said as  she signaled waist-height. “[But] as much as the subway is a part of us, because we’ve sung in the subway so much, it would be a big breath of relief when the day comes when we don’t have to play in the subway anymore.”

The band, which also plays local clubs and hopes to release a second album soon, has settled here after years on the road. Despite occasional hassles from police officers, Susan says the group’s subway dates are the key to building a fan base from which it can build to wider success.

“It’s the best venue for getting exposure,” she said. “Also, it’s good practice. … If you can play in the subway and get a crowd and be successful, you can play pretty much anywhere.”

An ‘electric violinist’ at Penn Station
Lorenzo Laroc, one of New York’s few electric violinists, is tough to miss.

Laroc is a mover. His musical performance is complemented by his dancing and deft sidestepping of commuters.

Though the crowded and stuffy station seemed a far from ideal venue, Laroc, who trained classically at Juilliard, clearly relished the audience.

“You’ve got a million people walking by you,” he said. “This is as live as it gets.”

Laroc said he has been playing the subway system for 15 years. He buttresses his income with concerts and corporate gigs, and frequently tours across the United States and Asia.

“It’s hard work, but it’s a great living if you’re doing it right and professionally,” Laroc said as he wiped sweat from his brow.

As opposed to other musicians who come from far away to play here, he clearly is proud of his local roots and their influence on his music.

“You know, it’s New York City and I’m a New Yorker, if you give New Yorkers what they want, they’ll (understand) it,” Laroc said. “You know, you can’t fool somebody here. They either like it or don’t.”

And commuters at 42nd Street Station seem to like accordionist Mitu Busioc. Not as flashy as some of his underground musical brethren, Busioc clearly relishes his time playing “music popular/music international” to travelers, despite the hustle and bustle around him.

The subway gives him an ideal space for him to entertain, day after day, in a public space, he said.

And why does he play underground? “Because I have five kids,” Busioc said with a broad smile.

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