SHE EASILY CATCHES my attention once she enters the train. With her neatly combed short hair and thick make-up, those big, dangling earrings and the colorful dress, she effortlessly exudes an air of elegance. She carries a small red purse which matches her floral dress. The doors of the train close. She remains standing although there are a lot of empty seats available in the carriage. When the train starts to move, a sweet smile automatically registers on her face highlighting her crimson red lipstick. I watch her stroll to the middle of the aisle. With two hands clasped together in an opera-star-belting position, she starts her aria of the “Ave Maria”.
Surprised passengers stop whatever they are doing and look at the figure singing before them. Several of them exchange what-is-she-doing glances. Her voice disperses throughout the four sides of the wagon but unfortunately she sounds like somebody trying to scare people away. From the previous surprised look on the passengers´ faces, now, they are swapping can-somebody-stop-her frown. Just in time for the next stop, she finishes her piece. Slowly and gracefully, she opens her red purse and extends it to the passengers, asking for whatever amount they wish to give for her operatic performance. I watch her glide from one passenger to another, still her rosy smile clipped on her face.
Her sweet smile gradually disappears once she realizes that nobody is giving her a single dime for her “heartfelt” act. She sways towards the door of the train and closes her purse. I walk behind her. Before she gets off the wagon, I hear her say, “Stingy Spaniards!”
Underground music industry
Buskers or street musicians, or as I love calling them, the “busketeers” or the metro musicians are my stress reducers. Madrid, having one of the longest underground rapid system in the world, is a perfect stage for these musicians. Madrid metro is not fun without them. Most of these musicians come from Eastern European and Latin American countries. They normally earn an average of 25 to 30 euros a day entertaining passengers from one train to another.
Their music varies with a touch of an international flavor. From a Romanian love song sung by a plump lady who always wears black from head-to-foot in Islas Filipinas station to a Beethoven masterpiece by a violin-playing Bulgarian in Diego de Leon station. Or in Plaza España, where every time I pass its hallway, the sweet melody of “Blue Moon” streams through the air. Certainly though, they have their own different styles and “repertoires” but the most popular song in the entire busking industry is the Spanish love song, “Besame mucho”. It seems that everybody has this in their playlist.
I admire these musicians for their creativity and resourcefulness. They are practically everywhere. Even before reaching the platform, you can already hear their music. There is always one near the entrance of the metro, one along the halls and one at the corner near the landing of the escalator. Their instruments come in different forms and sizes as well. And they have different styles too. Some of them sing with feelings while others just do it for the sake of playing, or rather, for money. Like the two Eastern European teenagers unmindfully playing their accordions like they are racing with each other. There’s another lady who performs with a lot of intensity. The way she grips the neck of her guitar and the way she strums the strings makes you feel her angst. God, she is really angry. Mind you, she is playing a happy love song.
From war dance to reggae
Musicians need to secure a permit in order to perform in the metro but some opt to skip them and go on with their trade dodging metro guards. I once saw one apprehended by guards and led out of the coach. To avoid the guards, most of them are careful enough to hide their portable speakers or microphones inside their rucksacks. They start their act only when the train starts moving and finish before the train halts at the next stop. Some of them are good at camouflaging. I remember an African guy whom I would never suspect of being a busker. It was only when he stood up and started pounding his drum, which he had discreetly taken out of a Corte Inglés plastic bag that I realized he was a member the underground music society chanting what seemed to be a war dance. The whole wagon shook from the vibes generated by the thumping. Was it my imagination or did I just hear a lion roaring from a distance?
For those with permit, they can perform without the need to watch out for the coming guards. In Avenida de America station, at the corner near the landing of the escalator is a happy looking African singing Bob Marley’s “No Woman No cry” with his organ. His voice is husky and a lot similar to Bob’s and his English is not bad. In fact, he is really good. He is a hit, I must say. People stop to drop money and our Afro singer happily pauses to say, “Yo, thanks ma man!”
Hearing almost a variety of buskers, I can’t avoid having favorites. One is a Colombian lady with a very soulful voice and I have caught her performance twice singing the song “Baila Morena”. I became an instant fan. She plies her busking service in Line 6 where the trains are always jam-packed to the rafters. She always gives an affecting rendition that, even if it is already difficult to move, she manages to get not only applause but also lots of euros! Another favorite of mine is an Ecuadoran duo.
One is playing the guitar and the other one is the singer-cum-clarinetist and their signature song is the sad “Un beso y una flor”; a kiss and a flower. The song is about a man leaving his town for a greener pasture and his longing for those he has left behind, a universal sentiment shared by immigrants away from home. I love this song a lot and it gives me goosebumps every time they sing it accompanied by the smooth sound of the clarinet.
With the rise of Ipods and such like, one would think that buskers are just wasting their time. Everybody seems to carry a gadget with them anywhere they go and nobody listens to them anyway. But on the contrary, there are still those who enjoy a live performance and I am one of them. Sometimes, not only they are musically good but the act itself is totally entertaining that never fails to put a smile on a passenger´s face and distracts him from getting bored throughout the trip.
Music with English tutorial on the side
I ENTER THE TRAIN again. The whistle blows. Two guys just make it before the doors completely close. They are laughing like two unruly grade school boys. One of them presses something inside his rucksack. Music starts playing at once; first the drumbeats, then the swooshing sound of the electric guitar. All the passengers start wondering where the sound is coming from. One of the guys takes out a microphone that has been tucked behind his back and starts singing a rock song. Actually, he doesn’t sound like he is singing because he is mumbling the words, shouting the chorus and banging his head in the air! Apparently, the two guys are having a good time. Instead of getting annoyed, everyone in the carriage is enjoying their act. And they are good looking, too. They can practically give any famous boy band a run for their money. A couple of admiring teenage girls shamelessly display their girlish giggles. After the song, before handing out their “donation box”, the singer recites a line from the song.
“My love will never say goodbye!” and carries on with, “Señoras y caballeros, la canción está en íngles, asi que permitanos traducir una linea de la canciòn en castellano, un poquito de clase de íngles para ustedes!
I release a loud laugh. The song is in English and for those who want to have a very short English class, he is offering a translation of a line from the song.
“Love significa amor.” He proceeds.
After uttering his first English lesson, we are laughing out loud. One of the lady passengers is already wiping her tears. She just can’t stop. And the guy goes on.
“Never es nunca.” “Say es decir y goodbye es adios.” “Mi amor nunca dirá adios. My love will never say goodbye.” And then he takes a bow.
Applause! Everybody is in stitches. To wrap up their act, the other guy comes forward.
“Pero antes de decir adios, os pedimos vuestra colaboración para que podamos continuar este poquito de música y un poquito de clase de íngles en el metro! Que tengais un buen viaje!”
Donation time! Everybody just loves them. One of the ladies asks where they come from. Argentina. That explains the accent. Anyway, I am also charmed by their show that I also find myself searching for coins which I must stress, I don’t normally do. But hell, they were really good. Forget about voice quality, they are just entertainingly awesome. I feel my pocket; no coins. The other boy is already coming towards me. I am still fishing in my other pocket. He is in front of me now with his cheesy Argentinean smile extending his purse expectantly. I check my back pocket and feel something; a coin. Good. I take it out. Two euros.
According to my stingy standard, this is so scandalously big for a donation. I sheepishly hand it to him still not wanting to let go. We are now both holding the two-euro coin. I look at him and he widens his already cheesy Argentinean smile. Fine, I let go. I hear the sound of my two-euro coin clinks against the other coins inside the purse. Before heading out of the wagon, he has some parting words for me “Muchas gracias caballero, que tengas un buen viaje.” I don’t have a choice but to say, “De nada!”
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 12 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino, expat magazine.