I remember my first RER trip back from Charles de Gaulle. Clutching my two overstuffed suitcases and taking it all in, the doors suddenly opened and an Opera singer walked in:
As if it wasn’t enough to take in the Parisian countryside on my way into the heart of the city, Paris decided to treat me with some local entertainment. That’s right — a woman got on the train and literally sang an aria out loud. God I love this place.
Excerpt from my Paris journal
And they don’t just break this out for the tourists, musicians were all over Paris. This vieil accordioniste was one of my favorties:
On the metro this morning, an elderly man and his accordion got on the ligne 4 at Cité. His frail fingers lifted up in anticipation of the first note and then hopped magically along the pegs and keyboard like young dancers. His choice of songs was perhaps cliché, though I prefer to call it classic. Something inside me longed to burst into tears as his wrinkled eyelids closed for Edith Piaf.
He didn’t stop playing or ask for money until St. Placide when a woman pressed a 1 EUR coin into his hand before two policemen escorted him off the train. When I walked up the stairs at Vavin, I could still see their hands coaxing the frail elbows of the still-smiling man off the car, waiting for him to put away the accordion that made him come alive. As I made my way to the top of the stairs, the skies were gray.
I thought of the accordionist’s lingering smile and hopeful melodies but I felt that a world where an old man got punished for a 1 EUR coin was not “la vie en rose.”
Paris is still a mystery to me. Part romance, part tragedy, she’s like the girlfriend you could never figure out, the Emma Bovary of cities. I may never understand her.
Excerpt from my Paris journal
And it was like this everywhere. In the trains, in the halls – world class concerts on the go. By the end of my sojourn in Paris as a daily metro commuter, I was completely spoiled.
So why are Parisian metro musicians so good?
Well, partly because the ones who play there legally have to be approved by a very competitive audition process, detailed in this NY Times Report:
Two classes of performers prowl the Métro: the legal ones awarded permits by Mr. Naso, and unlicensed buskers, who tend to corner captive audiences in trains with screeching accordions — or more unorthodox entertainment.
It wasn’t always like this. Before Mr. Naso’s group started assigning permits in 1997, musicians were all “unlicensed buskers” who managed to scrape by the police with their numbers.
“Transit officials came to the conclusion that if they couldn’t beat musicians at the game, perhaps they could join them — or at least organize them a bit better. So [in 1997] they set up auditions to select 300 or so performers to become the official musicians of the Paris subway.” -CNN
Now, though, many musicians see the Paris underground as a one-way ticket to stardom. For beyond just the waves of locals and tourists, music scouts tend to roam the subways as well.
The subways were the start for Keziah Jones, who played in the Paris metro in 1989 before becoming an international star. Why the Metro as a launch pad?
“It was close and Miles Davis was here”, Keziah said in a madaboutparis interview.
Jones returned to the Paris metro in 2008 to play this concert in his old stomping grounds:
In an age where most of us are listening to our favorite artists through personal earbuds, is the reign of the street musician on the decline? It remains to be seen, but perhaps Paris is on to something with its hub for live performance underneath the city.
What’s your take on street music? Should it be licensed or or more ad-hoc? Would you prefer the subways with live music or without? Let me know in the comments!