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Notes from Underground

The Music of New York's Subway System
  • Ebony Hillbillies

    The Ebony Hillbillies, a band in the MTA Arts for Transit Music Under New York (MUNY) program; photo by James Hooker

  • Salieu Suso

    MUNY musician Salieu Suso; photo by James Hooker

  • notes

    MUNY musicians Lorenzo Laroc (left) and Leonel Lorador (right); photos by James Hooker

  • 
notes

    MUNY performers Agua Clara (left) and Delta Dave Johnson (right); photos by James Hooker

  • Grand Central

    Grand Central Station; photo by James Hooker

  • Ace Hotel New York

    Ace Hotel New York

  • Ace Hotel New York

    Ace Hotel New York

CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

On the Atlantic coast, where the Hudson and East rivers meet the sea.

WHY GO

This is one of just a handful of cities with a genuine shot at the title of Capital of the World. If it isn’t happening in New York, it isn’t happening.

HOW

It’s practically impossible to avoid — all roads, rails and flight paths in the eastern U.S. seem to lead to New York.

TABLET TIP

Try to see the city’s much-vaunted attitude as a positive rather than a negative. Rarely will a New Yorker leave you wondering what he really thinks.

New York, June, 2013

I got interested in the music of the New York subway system when I heard a group of passers-by freestyling over a beatboxing didgeridoo player in the Atlantic Avenue station, in Brooklyn. A hip-hop purist might contest that if someone has anything but a pair of cupped hands in front of his mouth, he’s not really beatboxing, but whether because of the weird, amplified breathiness of the didgeridoo or the staccato percussion work the musician was doing on the wooden box that he used as a seat, it sounded more like beatboxing than beatboxing itself — the Platonic form of beatboxing, given some extra pop and a deep, gut-rumbling resonance by the accidental acoustics of the station.

I could hear it from a long way off, but as I approached, the music stopped, replaced by the patter of footsteps and an argument between a group of passing men. I only caught a snippet: “Nah, son, dude was killin’ it on that didgeridoo.” That was all I heard because, moments later, the dude — Mecca Bodega, I’d later learn — resumed killin’ it on the didgeridoo, inciting a chorus of ohhhs that quickly gave way to rhymes. I kept walking toward my train, but by the time the music was out of earshot, the sounds of Mecca Bodega and his passing accompanists were already lodged in my brain.

A week later, I stood beneath the famous gold clock in the center of Grand Central Station, trying to pick out Lydia Bradshaw from the thousands of people bending their paths around what at that moment felt like the center of the universe. (There’s something about train stations.) Lydia runs a program called Music Under New York (MUNY), and she’d agreed to spend the morning leading me through the Grand Central, Times Square, and 34th Street subway stations to hear some music.

Our first stop was the entrance to the Grand Central Shuttle platform, where a semi-circle had formed around a quartet called the Ebony Hillbillies. Led by fiddler Ohenio Henrique Prince, they’ve been playing in the subway under the auspices of MUNY for several years now. The band has had shows at Carnegie Hall in New York and the John F. Kennedy Center in D.C., performed at festivals like Spoleto in Charleston and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, but on this day they were a virtually anonymous group of musicians working the humble Shuttle platform. And though the venue, by definition, was one where everyone had somewhere else to be, there was no resisting the pull of their old-time sound. As each successive wave of travelers poured out of the train cars, a few people would stop a while to listen, the crowd replacing itself again and again as the band played on. I could have happily stayed for their full set, but they were only the first of many acts on the bill that morning.

Over the next few hours, I heard a musician named Salieu Suso ply deeply sweet sounds from an instrument, the Gambian kora, that I’d never before heard; watched Leonel Lorador, a Portuguese guitarist, seduce an old woman into dancing at his side while he played song after song to her; endured a hammed-up performance of classic rock covers by a buffed-out, tank-topped fellow on electric violin; nodded along to an old-fashioned blues man named Delta Dave Johnson; and tried not to get too dizzy watching an Andean ensemble called Agua Clara play beside a wall of screens showing WWE wrestling while I stood beneath Roy Lichtenstein’s kinetic-looking Times Square Mural.

Most of the performers were excellent, but the rarer pleasure was standing still and watching the people go by, seeing the presence of the music stir up weird scenes. Sometimes the crowd felt like a boulder in a current, causing threads of traffic to slow or bend or rush to the edges, with little eddies forming in the corners where those who couldn’t resist the music decided to stop and lean against a support beam. Occasionally a crowd would really swell around a band and other times people just turned their heads — or, more often, didn’t — and kept walking, but always the music seemed to have a physical effect on the flow of commuters. And then there were the dancers, often drunk, blissfully oblivious to the thousands of people trying to get by, and almost always very fun to watch, even if (and sometimes because) they were not so graceful.

If you wanted to replicate the experience on a visit to New York, the Ace Hotel would be the place to stay. It’s just steps from the Ace to the 28th Street subway station. From there, you can make a loop of some of the MUNY performers’ favorite stations — 34th Street, Times Square, Grand Central (with a stop for oysters and wine at the glowing old Grand Central Oyster Bar), and Union Square — before getting back out at 28th Street and returning to the Ace.

Nor will the music stop when you step inside the hotel. The Ace hosts resident DJs who do sets every evening, and Sunday nights there are free concerts — local indie rock bands, mostly — in the lobby. The people-watching at the hotel, a wondrously bizarre confluence of locals and guests who want a dose of Portlandia in New York, is every bit as good as what you’ll find underground. And if after all that flavor in your ear — after blues and kora and old-time string bands and Brooklyn indie rock and all the rest — you reach your musical saturation point, a brief night’s rest is just upstairs.

Mike Parker

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CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

On the Atlantic coast, where the Hudson and East rivers meet the sea.

WHY GO

This is one of just a handful of cities with a genuine shot at the title of Capital of the World. If it isn’t happening in New York, it isn’t happening.

HOW

It’s practically impossible to avoid — all roads, rails and flight paths in the eastern U.S. seem to lead to New York.

TABLET TIP

Try to see the city’s much-vaunted attitude as a positive rather than a negative. Rarely will a New Yorker leave you wondering what he really thinks.

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