Published: July 11, 2015
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.
Published: May 20, 2013
Behind the scenes at Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions, an uptown institution. ♦
Over the years, Count Basie, Paul Robeson and other prominent Harlem musicians and artists have lived behind the embellished iron gates of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, just beyond Sugar Hill. In apartment 3F, jazz still lingers in the air every Sunday afternoon.
Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions have become an institution. For 15 years, with the help of her son Rudel Drears, Eliot has been throwing open her parlor to everyone from travelers toting cameras and guidebooks to neighborhood regulars who help pass around punch and cookies during intermission. “This is the real thing,” says German tourist Dom Schick, a recent visitor. “This is the Harlem jazz scene you hear about.”
In Eliot’s apartment, photos of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane share wall space with Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. Folding chairs are crammed into rows in the small living room, kitchen and hallway. Eliot welcomes everybody with the same enthusiastic smile. She’s “somewhere over 50” and frail but wiry, elegant in her flowing Sunday best with a halo of gray hair. Her voice is measured and she speaks with effort, but projects well – a holdover, perhaps, from her days on the stage and in the choir. Eliot opens each session at the piano, softly ushering in the evening with a hymn or spiritual.
Drears, whose father is percussionist Al Drears (who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others), sings and alternates with Eliot on the ivories. An energetic musician in a crisp white shirt and black fedora, with blocks of cubic zirconia twinkling in his earlobes, he is prone to fits of post-performance chuckling.
About 50 people show up at 4pm every week. Though well-known musicians like bassist Bob Cunningham have been regular performers, the audience doesn’t come to meet the stars. “People come in for one reason, and that’s to listen to the music,” Drears says. “Some people find this to be a religious experience. Some people come here right after church, for communion – but it’s about the music.”
What Eliot calls “Studio 3F” has all the inclusivity of a house of worship, but with the secret air of a speakeasy. Saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who has played here regularly, calls Parlor Entertainment one-of-a-kind. “I like it because it’s cozy,” he says. “It’s personal. And it’s different. I’m just playing with two pieces, maybe three pieces, but it’s not a full band. I’m raw.”
Eliot grew up in a house with two pianos and began singing in church. Her family moved to New York in 1962, where she raised her five sons on music. “Her mother was her first teacher, just like she was my first teacher,” says Drears. Always active in the arts, Eliot appeared in the original production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody”, the first African-American play to win a Pulitzer Prize. She acted in Sydney Lumet’s “Serpico” (playing a rape victim) and in a Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding”. She wrote her own play, “Branches from the Same Tree,” in 1980, and won an AUDELCO award in 2003. She’s also taught theatre and music to children.
She started the parlor sessions as a way to cope with the loss of her son Phillip, an actor who died 17 years ago, at 32, of a kidney infection. The first intermittent performances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but soon musicians from Eliot’s circle of friends began playing regularly on Edgecombe Street. Drears remembers that “in the early days, it used to be maybe five people. Some days we would go the laundry room and say ‘Come upstairs, we’re doing a show.’”
As the word spread, mother and son had to set out more folding chairs each week. “We haven’t missed a single Sunday in all these years. We’re here rain, snow, blizzards…” Drears says.
Eliot pays the musicians out of pocket and with help from friends and a donation drum. “I don’t want to be funded, so nobody can tell me how to do it,” she says, adding that she has “lots of loans.”
“It’s kind of on a shoestring budget,” Drears says.
Three years ago, Eliot’s son Michael, a rock and R&B musician, died in his late 40s after an illness of several years. “It’s hard,” Drears says, “but God keeps us going. One of the things that makes this so great is the people that come through. They’re here to hear the music and they may be transformed.”
Regular visitor Bessie Mullings used to sing with Eliot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion; she comes to the parlor after church each Sunday. “After the second son died, she took it pretty rough,” she says of her friend. “But she still got to hold on to the piano. You can’t tell people how to heal. She’s been built up now, she’s coming back.”
Parlor Entertainment has become “the essence of my life,” says Eliot. “Everything kind of jumps off of this, and that really speaks to the universal language of music. It nourishes the soul.” At one recent performance, she told an audience that on Sunday nights, she’s “so happy that I can’t go to sleep.”
“People power” keeps the piano tuned and the punch flowing, says Eliot. “So much love and goodwill comes through these doors every Sunday. Folks have taken what is a very sad story and they make something beautiful of it.”
Published: October 27, 2009