Buskers Aren’t Beggars: The Art and Plight of Street Musicians - Community Week

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sauntering along 14th Street, the average pedestrian is treated to the same familiar bounty of sounds: renegade taxis zigzagging between blaring horns, the endless hijinks of dog walkers, street talkers, and meandering tourists. But there is another song lost to the daily roar of city life, and it is humming beneath the ground.

Descending into the dimly lit corridors of Union Square’s downtown N train station, a beautiful and haunting melody can be heard bouncing off the tiled walls. The sound is ethereal, floating along the platform like a ghost or the melancholy tune of some long lost whale. A crowd of commuters gather round to watch and listen, many rooted to the spot in awe.

Sitting before them is a woman using a bow to produce some of the most heart-wrenching sounds imaginable from a kind of rusted piece of metal that most people don’t associate with music.

She is playing an antique saw.

Natalia Paruz, known by many New Yorkers as “The Saw Lady”, has been a busker, or street musician, for nearly 19 years. Her story is nothing short of inspiring. She was a professional dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company of Contemporary Dance and a tap-dancing instructor, earning a living performance in musical theater. But her dance career ended abruptly one day on her way home from Lincoln Center: she was struck by a speeding taxi cab and suffered permanent damage to her upper spine.

Photo courtesy of Natalia Paruz.

To cheer her up, Paruz’s family took her on a trip overseas to Austria where she could see the beautiful locale from which her favorite film was made, The Sound of Music. While there, Paruz happened to witness a performer playing a musical saw for tourists.

“It blew me away,” Paruz tells BTR. “I thought the sound was phenomenal, and what really appealed to me was the visual – the fact that the whole instrument moved and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance!”

After the performance, the young Paruz wandered backstage and asked the musician if he would give her lessons. The man delivered a stern “no,” but encouraged her to go out and buy one and start practicing herself. She would figure it out.

Now Paruz is one of New York City’s most successful and well-known buskers. She has busked in Poland, France, Italy, Israel, and the Czech Republic – but New York City is where her heart is. Luckily for Paruz, this vibrant city is home to thousands of other street artists just like her.

“Buskers are like a family,” Paruz says. “We all know one another. Mostly I know the ones who play along my busking route [the N/R lines]. We always stop to talk with one another, we keep in touch through the internet and we sometimes get together socially. Buskers always help one another. It is an honor for me to belong to this close knit community.”

The NYPD, however, might be mandating an even closer – if not territorially hostile – relationship between public performers like Paruz. It is completely legal to perform in the New York City Subway System, yet every year buskers are harassed, ticketed, and even arrested for expressing their first amendment rights. The New York City Transit (NYCT) is the subdivision of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and authorizes the following:

“Public speaking; distribution of written materials; solicitation for charitable, religious or political causes; and artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations.”

There are, of course, certain limitations to this freedom. Performers may not set up within 25 feet of a token booth, in areas of construction, in subway cars, in places where they might potentially interfere with transit traffic, and recently, within 50 feet of a landmark or monument. Though contrary to popular belief, a busker does not need a permit to perform in the subway.

This freedom does not leave performers exempt from NYPD harassment though. Many of these officers are uneducated about the rights endowed to artists who wish to express themselves freely in public. As an experiment to understand just how knowledgeable city authorities are about street performance, musical activist, traveler, and writer Nick Broad decided to call the 86th Precinct operating under the guise of a foreign visitor.

“I told them I was a busker from out of town,” Broad tells BTR. “I want to perform, where can I go? They put me on hold for a long time, only to tell me I had to get a permit, and to go online. So I took to combing through the internet and couldn’t find one. There is no permit. But for some reason they were under the impression that you need one. Musicians Under New York (MUNY) – yes you need a permit to be a member, but that only grants you amplification privileges. Police are misinformed about this, and it leads to constant harassing.”

Broad is an authority of sorts on busking. His fascination with the practice began at eight years old, when a street performer pulled him out of a crowd of over 200 people. Years later in 2004, Broad moved in with his grandmother and a Chinese violinist, Chen Cong, who had been busking in the Manhattan subways for 18 years. Cong fled from China to NYC in an escape from political turmoil, and although he could be found playing concerts in the city’s most heralded concert halls, he preferred the city itself as his stage.

“For just over two dollars you could see a professional performance at the 57th street F train stop,” Broad tells BTR. “I saw people stand there for an hour, wiping away tears, smiling; kids doing ballet moves, couples holding hands, people making eye contact in the subway. He transformed this disgusting, dank space into a beautiful concert hall.”

You can watch one of his performances here.

But Cong was harassed so much by the police in his 18 years of busking that he was eventually driven off of the stage that he had come to love.

“Having just escaped cultural revolution, he didn’t want to be controlled anymore,” Broad says. “You know, he probably helped more kids experience classical music in all those years than any major sponsored children’s program. It got me angry. You shouldn’t have to beg to improve so many people’s lives.”

This passionate anger transformed itself into a beautiful journey for Broad, who found himself befriending buskers from all around the world. In 2011 Broad started the Busking Project, which entailed traveling to a list of 40 cities on five continents. He spent six days in each city with a small crew of photographers and journalists in order to document the world’s first HD digital archive of street performances from artists of all backgrounds.

The result was nothing short of stunning. With the help of hundreds of “hosts, guides, fixers, networkers, translators, transcribers, technical consultants, filmmakers, editors, volunteers, chefs, and impromptu therapists,” they managed to film one busker a day for 300 days, capture 47,000 photos, gain press in 11 countries, post over 100 shorts on YouTube, and grow a network of thousands of buskers worldwide.

All of this will be published in a book which has recently undergone completion of its third draft stage and should be set to print sometime next week. The book will undoubtedly offer an interesting lens into an eclectic mix of different performers’ experiences.

“There was a guy we filmed in Hong Kong who didn’t have any hands,” Broad says. “He molded roses out of clay with a stick, attaching petals that he sculpted with his stumps. He was extremely quick, and it was amazing – would have been incredible even for someone with ten fingers. Some were donating for the performance, some were buying the roses, some paying with guilt. But I think he cared most about the people who simply loved the beauty.”

You can watch the incredible video here:

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/26278713[/vimeo]

Broad is doing everything he can to protect individuals like this man, who are a part of such an incredibly talented and ever-growing community. In California and London there is a new license being considered which will ban public performance of all wind and percussion instruments, “increasing the fee for giving your heart away for free,” as Broad puts it. So The Busking Project has orchestrated a protest in response, which will include a 50 person kazoo orchestra and celebrity attendees. All of this will be documented and the event will be sponsored by a major whiskey company, which refused to officially disclose its name until final confirmation of participation sometime next week.

Broad has also been working on a phone app which will allow buskers to receive donations and network amongst themselves more easily.

“You have these certain spots that allow for it to happen,” Broad explains. “There are not normally that many ideal spots, so you find artists coming together. How do we organize who goes when? They have to form relationships and communicate. Unlike sound checks, you can spend hours waiting in line for your 45 minutes.”

But sound check to subway stage isn’t that much of a difference for most musicians – many who perform on both platforms do so because it’s what they love most.

“It’s my way of breaking barriers and invisible walls between people, bringing people together, to notice one another,” Paruz tells BTR. “It’s through a collective and spontaneous group experience on the street; through the music, in the moment, with me. Taking people walking down the street and molding them into a living and breathing work of art. Unifying them and connecting us all in a spontaneous magical experience.”

Photo courtesy of Natalia Paruz.

“Some people would think of them as failed artists,” says Broad. “People don’t understand that people choose to be buskers, but do it to supplement income, to have an audience. If you will label success by iTunes and record labels, that’s not the kind of success I want. If it’s about audience, then they are successful. Buskers teach you that you want to be entertained. We don’t appreciate that they are cultural heroes [enough],” he concludes.

It’s hard not to agree with him. These men and women give away performances, offering one of the most genuine forms of human expression on the planet: entertainment in and of itself.

“There’s nobility in being a street musician,” Paruz says. “It’s not just about making money and surviving. Not at all. It’s the opposite. If you intend to make money, generally you won’t make much and won’t meet anyone. But if your intention is to go out and sing your heart out and enjoy yourself, the world opens up. Which is a lesson for life.”

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