Song of the open road

Street music ♦

Concerts go down in history for attracting record crowds, for the debut of a groundbreaking work, or the return of a long-absent musician to the gig circuit. Rarely are they remembered for being completely ignored. Yet a performance by American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell became legendary precisely for that reason – and for what it revealed about context and the perception of talent.

In 2007, on a chilly winter morning in Washington DC, the Grammy-awarded musician played at a subway station in an experiment with The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten. But Bell’s deft rendition of technically difficult passages of Bach and his interpretation of the soulful strains of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” fell on deaf ears. Hundreds of harried commuters rushed by, barely registering the musician the Post described as “a heartthrob” and his multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. Few people tipped, only one recognised Bell, and just a couple stopped to listen at all.

Living in the capital of the USA or India, it’s not cynical to acknowledge that aesthetic discrimination is a socially learned, even marketable, value – that taste is based more on trends than judgement. People are busy and context matters, whether it’s a violin prodigy in a subway station, or Rajasthani folk musicians playing Defence Colony bar. As discussed in this issue’s cover story, performance is increasingly moving to ticketed venues and private funding. We ought also to pay attention to music (or the lack thereof) in public.

The street musician has been a familiar fixture in Indian literature and cinema long before the little Lata singing for her supper in Bombay Talkies. In the film, the child sounds like she’s in a studio rather than on a pedestrian overpass, but her song’s uncluttered mastering does suggest one truth about the unexpected encounter with street music: it can take the listener out of his immediate surroundings, lifting life to the realm of the cinematic, creating narrative where before there was only noise.

The beggar girl singing “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh” also speaks to a truth about Mumbai – that street musicians are still relatively audible in that city, particularly in and around its commuter trains. There’s even an initiative called National Streets for Performing Arts, founded last year, which collaborates with the Railways to bring music to the tracks and other public spaces. Artists recruited for the program have played everything from didgeridoo and djembe to dholak in public.

Programmed in detail and supported by a mutual fund, NSPA is perhaps less indie than some like their buskers to be – but it fits with the way street performance is regulated in cities around the world. The paragon is Music Under New York – going strong for nearly 30 years – with blogs and books written about its roster of auditioned artists. Occasionally a charismatic performer almost makes the city’s subway system seem too efficient. There are also freelancers; once, when riding the NYC subway on John Lennon’s birthday, I heard a long-haired guy with a guitar whose simple cover of “Imagine” had more than a few passengers sniffling surreptitiously into their sleeves.

Elsewhere in India there are some efforts to promote street music. I spent a pleasant morning in a public park in Panaji recently, listening to a Goa Tourism-sponsored performer cuing up Chris Perry and Lorna hits with a young girl from the audience joining in. But what of Delhi? I’ve seen maybe a couple of folk musicians out and about – and no sponsored artists, except maybe at fairs or Dilli Haat.

Yet there is music on the streets, ranging in scale from pure cacophony to passable melody. Religious music crackles out of the inner courtyards of Sufi shrines, gurudwaras and mandirs, or blasts from MP3 CD shops. There are the outdoor speakers of Delhi’s various temples to hedonism too. Bandwallas blow away at “Tequila” and “Gangnam Style”. My favourite – as someone who’s lived a long time in the zipped-lips, eye contact-avoiding USA – are snatches of singing by random passersby. No soundtrack is a success until its hits are being belted lustily by every third hero that walks by.

Maybe the fact that walking isn’t much encouraged in Delhi is one reason why its street music scene isn’t thriving. Women rarely amble, and everyone else is too busy trying not to get run over or dehydrated. What public space exists is regulated by systemic corruption. Every day, more of it vanishes into malls with canned pop piped in alongside central airconditioning, or it disappears under another road for cars blasting electronica late at night. There are some free concerts in parks – but few initiatives that actually bring music to those who don’t seek it. How brilliant if the Delhi Metro hosted a series of performances. Or DTC buses. Who knows? The next Bell or Mangeshkar could be out there, just looking for a platform.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2013.