Although contortionists, snake charmers and barrel organ players have long been forgotten in the world of public performance, street entertainment still thrives today. Whether it is for self-expression, self-preservation, or just for the love of the craft, buskers—a word which comes from buscar in Spanish, meaning to seek or to wander—are a colourful lot of artists who add their unique brushstroke to a city’s portrait.
In Barcelona, of all the things that can be taken in on foot—Gaudí’s legacy, Catalan Modernisme, the Gothic quarter, living statues and caricaturists on La Rambla—also to be admired are the transit musicians who twang, harmonise or serenade, wherever permitted, to any strolling flâneur or rubbernecking tourist.
I’ve always been fascinated by transit musicians and what makes them tick, so I took to the streets not only to show my appreciation but to get to know a few of them.
Twenty-one-year-old Karolina, from Poland, is a music student at the Barcelona conservatory. Her dream is to be a classical violinist and to be able to master Prokofiev and Sibelius. “It is my passion.” Karolina says, “I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven years old.” When asked about her favourite spot and her motivation to play in the subways, Karolina answers frankly: “Plaça Catalunya is the best place, in my opinion. I play in the underpass strictly to sustain myself as a student. In one hour, I could make, on average, sixty euros.”
Xavi Rodellino Pérez, a “subterranean” musician in his forties, commutes fifty kilometres every day to play his favourite folk musicians, such as Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan. Playing the guitar and harmonica from an early age, it wasn’t until hearing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here that he was inspired to showcase his own musical talents.
“My motivation is the music,” he says. “With music, I found my way in life, dedicating myself to my instrument. I don’t write songs and it’s always been a great frustration that I couldn’t put more effort into writing, because of work and other things. Of course, playing in the subways also helps me earn a bit more than my normal salary.”
Regarding his moments of glory, the best thing that has ever happened to Xavi was not only the €20 gratuity that he once received—still nothing like the €100 tip his musician friend brags about—but that his playing once moved a commuter to tears. The money means much less to him than the emotional response.
It’s a nightmarish underpass for commuters but Passeig de Gràcia is Xavi’s favourite spot to play. And surely after hearing him sing “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor it is no wonder why he gets excited at this particular venue. Xavi’s soft melodic voice resonates well through the passage’s long and vestibular corridor, a kind of perfect acoustic that not only naturally amplifies his voice but makes the commuter’s transfer a little more bearable.
But not all commuters regard the musicians in such a sentimental light, especially those musicians who play in the wagons. Sabrina, 22, a student of philosophy at UB said, “It is difficult to escape them when it’s too loud or if it’s an irritating playback.”
Misunderstood in many parts of the world, buskers are a cultural phenomenon who will always be as much despised as they are appreciated. The old stereotype of the homeless alcoholic, or never-do-good vagrant has never quite been shaken off. With that in mind, the city has stepped in not only to broaden the public’s consciousness but to show that these talented artists deserve respect. They are as much a part of Barcelona’s art culture as Gaudí and the Catalan artists who grace the walls of the city’s museums.
Twelve years ago, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB) and the Ajuntament, in collaboration with AMUC (Associación de Músicos de la Calle), came together to establish rules and regulations regarding playing in the subways. The TMB describes the project as “pioneer” and holds an annual street music festival over several days in the Autumn. Since the regulations were introduced, 600 musicians have been given licences that allow them to play legally at one of 38 points in the subways. To obtain the licence they must pass a “suitability” audition. According to the TMB, the aim of the programme is to regulate performances and to ensure that they are “compatible with the normal development of the metro’s services.” Besides the metro, there are 23 locations in Ciutat Vella where busking is allowed. Access is strictly regulated and musicians must first apply for an annual permit. Many buskers and their supporters, however, believe the regulations are unconstitutional and a violation of “sidewalk democracy.”
Every week in Barcelona, an average of three “illegal” musicians are fined by the Guàrdia Urbana. The fines are a minimum of €190 and the equipment is confiscated and sent to a warehouse. If the fine is not paid in due time, the instruments are then donated to music schools all over the city. At the last count there were 230 sanctioned instruments ranging from bongos to expensive violins.
Stanislav (“Stanis”) Voytsehovskyy, originally from the Ukraine, is the Vice-President of AMUC, a cultural association with over 500 members. The association’s objectives are to ensure that there is order, justice and equality in playing the underground system. They also organise workshops, renew licenses, support musicians with their recording studio and give artists the opportunity to play at bigger venues. I was recently invited to one of their concerts at Centre Cívic La Sedeta and was blown away by the openness of the musicians, their professionalism and the quality of the acts: The Spotshines, Casi el Mejor Trio de tu Vida, and of course, the headliner, Stanis’s own band, Banda Mutant.
Stanis has been living in Barcelona for 15 years and has been playing in the underground for the last four. I spoke to the tall, bearded Slav who reminded me of a biker in an outlaw motorcycle club. At Verdaguer, late in the night, while he was plugging in his electric guitar, I asked him about his story.
“I came to Barcelona because, like many others, I was looking for a new life. I finished electrical engineering and worked at a factory. It was a company here in Barcelona manufacturing electrical devices, but being the last one in through the door, when the crisis hit, I was the first one out. So, I started playing on the streets. My first street stage was the Arc de Triomf.”
In the middle of the interview we were interrupted by another musician, a Paraguayan man, whom Stanis had never met before. “You play blues? Hendrix?” he asked. “Not really,” replied Stanis, “mostly the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who.”
The brief exchange acknowledged their common struggle, and the man then started singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” into Stanis’ microphone. Stanis happily joined the impromptu session with a few chords until the unknown musician stopped and turned to him. “I haven’t been playing too much myself. Too many police reprimanding musicians,” he said.
The exchange between Stanis and the Paraguayan man shows how a public area can easily be converted into a platform for creative artists. AMUC and other grassroots community organisations recognise the need for street artists to be able to keep on with their craft as well as to have a place where they can connect, grow and develop, individually or in groups.
There’s also a relationship between the artist and the wider community. It’s a complex relationship in which the right for self-expression and freedom to play anywhere is not necessarily embraced by all. And here is where, in Barcelona, the Ajuntament and TMB attempt to walk a fine line to keep everyone happy. Should musicians be able to strike up wherever they want? Does it matter how good they are? Or, is freedom a vital imperative for the growth of young individuals, and communities?
Whatever your personal take might be, street musicians are an undeniably vibrant part of the cityscape. With organisations such as AMUC advocating for them and Barcelona’s status as an international tourist magnet, our commutes will be accompanied by music for a long time yet to come. So, don’t just toss a few coppers into an upturned fedora, but reach your hand out, introduce yourself, and eliminate that seemingly impersonal barrier separating them from the rest of society. You’re not paying for their silence, after all.
Associación de Músicos de la Calle (AMUC)
Tel. 93 310 3732 / 660 674 656
The AMUC website has a list of the current regulations regarding playing on the metro and in open public spaces.
Licences to play in a public space in Ciutat Vella are managed at the Centre Cívic Convent Sant Agustí. Details on how to apply can be found at: www.bcn.cat/centrecivicsantagusti