The New York subway system is one of the largest in the world, ferrying nearly eight and a half million people around the city every week. Riders find more than transportation below the streets; amid the dirt and the grime and the screech of the trains, there is also music. The subway system is like a free concert hall, offering almost every kind of music, from West African kora to American bluegrass to Vietnamese string instruments and Mexican mariachi bands.
You never know what you might encounter, depending on the day of the week and the particular station. At a subway platform below Pennsylvania Station one afternoon recently, Rawl Mitchell, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, was playing the steel drums. He said he’s been performing in the subway since the mid-1990s.
“The people do appreciate the music,” he said. “They stand around listening, and if it pleases them, they applaud and put their money in the case or whatever. They usually clap and say, you know, it’s nice. They offer me some positive feedback.”
Singer-songwriter Rosateresa, who often sings on a station at 14th Street, has been at it almost as long. She moved from Puerto Rico to study classical voice several decades ago. “My mission is to sing like the jilguero - the jilguero is a Puerto Rican bird - that wakes up the sun. My mission is to sing like a brook, without stopping," said Rosateresa.
Mitchell and Rosateresa both perform independently, outside the transit authority’s official “Music Under New York” program, which sponsors 150 performances each week, by more than 200 individuals and groups. Those in the official MTA program must audition yearly. Mitchell said he’s usually visiting Trinidad and Tobago in the spring when auditions are held. For her part, Rosateresa says she is too much of a rebel to participate in the official program.
“It’s a long story,” she said, “but my family did not support my singing - that’s the shortest version - and when I discovered I could sing in the subway, I could be rebellious that way. You can either be rebellious or have a license, but you cannot have both,” she said.
Court cases have held that subway singers have a First Amendment right to perform and do not need MTA permission. Still, now and then police tell them to stop.
"Occasionally a policeman will tell me to go. And I go. I don’t argue with men with guns, that’s my motto,” said Rosateresa.
Like Rosateresa and Mitchell, musicians who participate in “Music Under New York,” earn only whatever people choose to give. Opera singers Tom McNichols and Patricia Vital, part of a group called “Opera Collective,” said they love performing in the subways, though it isn’t lucrative.
“Music in general is not about for the money, and music under New York is definitely more about making opera accessible than it is about making a living,” McNichols said.
Folksinger Wendy Sayvetz has been a Music Under New York performer for 22 years, almost as long as the program has existed. She says she’s as proud of her work in the subways and rail stations as she is for having once sung at the White House.
“Most people don’t really get what this is about, that we actually love this gig,” she said. “The features about us on the news tend to go for the cliché, that we’re down and out. I actually had someone say to me once, ‘Is something wrong with you? You’re so good, what are you doing here?’”
Sayvetz and a partner are developing a musical play about subway musicians in part to challenge that stereotype. “Light in the Tunnel” will feature 20 subway performers and groups, all playing themselves.“It’s not about,‘Oh, we don’t have to play in the subway anymore,’ Sayvetz said. “We want people to go, ‘Oh, subway music is the best thing!'”
Yet many people already feel that subway music is the best thing. Even in the age of personal MP-3 players, busy New Yorkers sometimes stop in their tracks to listen. And now and again, a spontaneous dance party will break out - as when a group of New York teenagers taking the subway at 42nd Street found the jazz of Welf Dorr’s “Underground Horns” impossible to resist.