Have you ever been to Buenos Aires, Quito, Caracas, or Mexico City? If so, it's highly likely that you have ridden the metro in these cities. As such, it is also likely that at some point you've encountered the street musicians that use these modes of transportation as a stage.
You may like them or you may be bothered by them. You may even consider it an illegal activity, as was recently the case in Medellin, Colombia. But it is difficult to remain indifferent when an artist is demonstrating his or her skills or telling an infectious personal joke.
Let's take a quick and comfortable virtual tour of some of the Latin American cities whose subways are frequently taken over by public art.
Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, is traditionally known as a cosmopolitan city, home to a vibrant arts and culture scene. This is reflected in the performances I came across in the Buenos Aires subway.
YouTube user buenosaires34 uploaded the following video in 2011 of a couple of musicians in a Buenos Aires subway station. They call themselves Rusia Kalipso and their music is also available on MySpace. With a guitar, a musical saw, and lots of fun, they entertain riders waiting for their train to arrive (and manage to make a few bucks along the way):
Let's leave the station and get on the subway. A bit full? You wouldn't believe that in the narrow aisles of a subway car, riders could find an five-piece orchestra. Nonetheless, swing band Los Hijos del Sodero managed to arrange it so that they could perform in one and even use the subway car itself as an instrument. We can appreciate their talent in the following video posted on YouTube by Mr. Duke Baires:
These types of musical genres are not the only ones that can be found in the Buenos Aires metro. According to Global Voices collaborator Jorge Gobbi, “There are many musicians floating around, some with portable speakers playing everything from folk music to punk. They can easily be found on the weekends (on weekdays, certain lines are very crowded). But it is informal, as opposed to the product of government policies or anything like that. Nevertheless, the topic is being dealt with more strictly in recent months, and the Metropolitan Police, functioning under the government of the city, is driving them out. But they seem like specific policies because it is not difficult to find musicians in the subway cars and platforms.”
Now let's cross the Andes and go to Santiago de Chile. Although the image that most people outside of Chile have in regards to Santiago natives are of dedicated workers, they view themselves as lazy or even spoiled. It is important to remember that, for example, Los Caporales, a Chilean comedy duo, made all of Latin America laugh for several decades since the 1950s. Current Chilean humor can be a bit harsh for other countries’ tastes, but it is no less effective.
And what does humor have to do with music? Watch the following video uploaded by YouTube user Jonathan Alzamora and you will understand:
Elizabeth Rivera, a GV collaborator in Santiago, tells us that Rafael Budú, the artist playing in the video above, has gotten a lot of exposure thanks to his performances in the metro, or Transantiago. He has even become an Internet sensation, according to certain media outlets, has been hired by companies and even appeared on television.
Next let's jump to Mexico City, more specifically to the metro, where musicians play rock music with their instruments and speakers. Doubtful? Watch the following video uploaded by Carlos Luis in 2012:
But there are more than just Mexican artists in Mexico City's metro. In the following video, shared by Eduardo Franco in 2011, we can see a seemingly Colombian duo performing music from their country:
Indira Cornelio, a GV collaborator in Mexico City, says: “These types of groups are common in the subway and on buses. One time I found an excellent storyteller on the metro. Also, there is a man in the park that dresses up as a jester and sings all of the songs from Cri-Cri, a very popular Mexican composer and performer of children's song. He's very popular. I also have a friend who earns his living singing on buses and recently street vendors have become banned from the metro. The truth is I don't know if this has affected subway musicians as well.”
On to Quito, where a proper metro doesn't exist yet, but there is a system of buses and trams known as the trolleybus. Street musicians also take advantage of the system of transport, as seen in the video below, uploaded to YouTube by a user from Elcomerciocom:
These hip hop performers are common on the trolleybus, so much so that I, someone who does not live in Quito, have come across them on several occasions. As Susana Morán, an Ecuadorian blogger, states: “Rappers, ballad singers, and merengue performers all pass through there. Some enjoy the performances and sing along and if no one gives them a single penny, they do not seem bothered because — maybe — they are doing what they love most. Nonetheless, some have hoarse voices and are reluctant in their performances — who knows how many times they have sung that one song. Due to fatigue, a gallo (a poorly toned note) is permitted here and there. They wear ternos (suits) despite the fact that in Quito the midday sun is unbearable. Or at night they walk around in t-shirts, jeans, and a guitar on their backs.”
Finally, we end in Caracas, where we end our virtual musical tour with this video, uploaded to YouTube by todovariedad in 2009. Let us introduce you to Cindy:
Cindy, the rapping grandma (thank you, Luis Carlos) has been a Caracas metro sensation for years. According to Buenamúsica: “The beautiful thing about this woman is that she does not interfere with anyone. She herself makes fun of her own appearances, as well as her difficult life in the neighborhood, her beloved dog, her three cats, her three husbands that do not stop her (they do not pay attention to her) and who she does not stop.” But perhaps because of the troubling situation in Venezuela now, she is gone. “She is most likely not seen on the metro recently because of the new law that prohibits cultural events in subway cars.”
In short, despite the increasing restrictions by city authorities, in exercising the right to freedom of expression and the need for members of society to have an unregulated cultural exchange, urban musical art in Latin America is alive and kicking. This, in times of smart cities that threaten to convert our cities into workspaces and places of permanent vigilance, is not an understatement.