Monday, May 17, 2010

The Sounds of the Underground

It seems somehow fitting that today I wish to discuss the topic of music. For those who do not know, Sunday was a very sad day in the world of music is one of Rock's greatest legends, Ronnie James Dio, passed away. This man was a pioneer in the metal industry and will be sorely missed as he helped invent a large part of how Rock is today. Personally, my pick for the man's greatest achievement is the invention of heavy metal Charades with the awesome song "Rainbow in the Dark".

Onto slightly lighter matters, the reason I had intended to discuss music today is because living in New York there is so bloody much of it. All my music minded friends, never fear as I'm not against the idea of music just against the bastardisation that you encounter on a minute by minute basis whilst riding the subway.

For anyone who has not been to New York let me explain as the above probably sounds quite silly. For those of you who have had the "pleasure" of riding the London Tube system, you are probably all familiar with the generic homeless guy who sits at the intersection of the tube tunnel twanging away on his banjo. These people used to quite irritate me, not because I have anything against homeless people (I am in fact quite charitable) but because they force you to listen to that god-awful racket whilst you're trying to find you're train.

All I can say is, at least the buskers in London are stationary because the buskers in New York ride the system, literally. In point of fact you simply cannot take a journey on the subway without being harassed by at least one busker and the sad part is that after six weeks I consider myself painfully lucky if in a 20 minute journey I get away with only one person/group trying to bum money. In New York, the buskers make their way down each train carriage or darting between trains meaning that in any given journey you could, and likely will be, made to feel guilty numerous times.

Some critics of my blog have noted that I seem to be portraying New York in a somewhat downward light. To those critics all I can say is that I play 'em like I seem 'em but in order to quieten the masses and avoid any pitchfork scenarios I will point out that New York does upstage London in one aspect of its buskers; New York buskers come in a variety of types.

Whilst riding the tube system in London you are pretty much destined to see what appears to be the same generic homeless men playing the same generic banjo. I have sometimes wondered whether it is the same homeless men who just so happens to be in every single tube station that I frequent (as John would say "it's not paranoia if they are all out to get me"). If you are particularly lucky Mr Banjo will have a dog, though I suspect this is merely to throw us off the scent of the fact that there is an army of cloned homeless men wandering the streets of London.

In New York, although you have substantially more busking encounters every day, I would be very surprised if you saw the same people more than once. In fact, it's kind of like Pokémon: Gotta Catch 'em All. For example over the last week there has been Fiddle Guy, Trombone Guy, Saxophone Guy (who, as a brass player gets an additional D20 against Fiddle Guy who is a string player).

Last but not least, and the main purpose behind this blog, was "The Amazing Bongo Brothers". Five guys each with a Bongo. Now, let's start with the name which I promise you in England would have resulted in a lawsuit under the trade descriptions act. I think most people would agree that if you have the agility and proportional strength of a spider as well as the ability to swing through skyscrapers, it's pretty fair enough to refer to yourself as Amazing. Five guys who cannot play the simplest instrument in the world (barring the triangle) should probably be taken out back and shot just to ensure that the gene pool does not have to suffer their continued existence and potential procreation.

On the other hand, I can potentially see some useful these guys. Thanks to a certain friend who I met on a Job Centre course and shall remain nameless (Becky) I am mildly addicted to the television programme Spooks and there is a certain episode which focuses on the torture of a man by MI5 in order to extract information regarding a potential terror attack. It was an amazing episode but I can't help thinking if they simply came to New York and hired the Amazing Bongo Brothers, set them up in the torture room and told them "go nuts" the guy probably would have cracked in just shy of three minutes because honestly they sucked. That. Bad.

I lied, The Amazing Bongo Brothers are not last and can be upstaged by one individual who, I'm sure, believes himself to be the greatest entrepreneur since Richard Branson. This diabolical genius simply entered the train and walked down placing a hat in front of every person on the train. Let me reiterate: he played no instrument, gave no sob story about how he was attacked and had his ID stolen, he did nothing other than place of a hat in front of people and by gum he made more money than almost any other busker I have seen. If there are any scouts for The Apprentice reading this go to New York and sign him up because this man makes a (relative) fortune with no overheads.

Once again, to satiate the New York lovers out there rest easy because my final example of music encountered whilst travelling is of the polar opposite variety. Having encountered all of the above you can imagine my surprise when I descended the stairs at Times Square station to discover a string quintet by the name of The Elianto Quintet blasting out a truly phenomenal rendition of Viva La Vida by Coldplay. I cannot quite describe how simply amazing these musicians were except to say that they had me captivated in a train station for almost half an hour and I had to drag myself away. I even bought their CD. I've been listening to the Coldplay version almost non-stop for 24 hours and it's just not the same.

I should point out that the comparison between this amazing group and the buskers described above is a little unfair as I have since discovered that the quintet are in fact all students at the Juilliard School. For those of you unaware this school is one of, if not the Premier School for classical musicians in the world. Long story short, if any of you ever get the opportunity to listen to this group at any stage of your life I would thoroughly recommend attending. And if any of you are ever lucky enough to catch these guys performing in a subway be sure to put some money in a case as I guarantee you a concert worthy performance.


  1. Did the string quintet have a banner hanging behind them? All the buskes in the NYC subway who have a banner behind them have passed an audition to play there and they are permitted musicians. The others you described are not. Find out about the subway musicians audition: And by the way - have you encountered the 'Saw Lady' in the subway yet?

  2. Yeah they had a banner with "The Elianto Quintet" and the Julliard logo. So far they are the only ones with a banner that i've seen.

    I don't think i've seen a lady with a saw, I'm almost afraid to ask but what does she do with the saw...?