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Crooning to a City in Transit

Move over, Maurice Chevalier. Many of the buskers in Paris' Metro are foreigners, celebrating France's multiethnic future.

October 21, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — As his train thunders through the darkness beneath the city, the motorman feels in tune with the music of the Metro.

Jean-Michel Grandjean has absorbed the rhythms during 29 years driving Paris subway trains: the beat of the tracks, the wail of the warning siren, the sigh of the closing doors. He knows the flow of the crowds at the Concorde station, the furtive footwork of the drug dealers on the platform at Strasbourg Saint-Denis.

Grandjean, a veteran musician, has an ear for the melodies of the Metro as well. At the Opera stop named for the baroque lyric palace above, a plump jazz singer in a denim skirt and maroon sneakers croons "They Can't Take That Away From Me." At Republique, a guerrilla band of Romanian gypsies hustles aboard with trumpets blaring "Besame Mucho" at point-blank range, one hand out for coins and one eye out for the police.

And when the motorman's workday ends, sometimes he straps on a guitar himself at the Bastille station, with its staggering derelicts and regal Africans in turbans. Grandjean's song "Thanks to the Musicians," featured on a recent CD of 14 performers from the Metro, sounds like Maurice Chevalier meets Dixieland. It is an ode to a subterranean subculture:


"There will never be too much

never too much music

in the tunnels without end

of the Metropolitain."

Unlike the singing motorman, most subway buskers in Paris do not work for the RATP, the city transit agency. Yet about 350 musicians wear badges issued by the RATP, which requires them to audition for authorization to make music underground. The badges represent a flourishing fusion of art, bureaucracy and immigrant cultures and have inspired similar efforts by the subways of London, Tokyo and Rotterdam.

Six years ago, the powers that be at the Paris subway came to the conclusion that musicians would always try to scratch out a living in the sprawling transit system, even if it was illegal. The RATP set out to simultaneously encourage and regulate performers, thereby ensuring a modicum of civic order and musical quality.

The program has helped Parisians to better appreciate a kind of buried treasure.

More than half the buskers are foreigners, mainly from Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America. The artists on the CD, titled "Connections," range from a dreadlocked Senegalese guitarist with flamenco influences to a Tuareg vocalist from the Sahara to six brothers whose subway performances of "rai," a joyful musical style from Algeria, set off impromptu dance sessions in the tunnels. Together, they celebrate France's multiethnic future, just as the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower preserve the glories of the past.

"The first thing I tell people from cities who want to copy this is that you have to have the potential, the talent, the artists," said Antoine Naso, the RATP's in-house impresario. "Paris has a concentration, a mix of musicians from the entire world that come here. That's our strength."

Naso, a compactly built, 20-year employee of the Metro, has graying curly hair and the relaxed air of a man who likes his job. He balances an evident fondness for his musicians with a quiet determination to enforce the rules. Buskers are supposed to perform only in corridors and station lobbies, and not on platforms or in trains, where at close quarters they can create safety hazards and assault the eardrums.

The most frequent transgressors are the gypsy musicians from Eastern Europe who operate mafia-style, turning over their earnings to enforcers and avoiding contact with officialdom. They tend to play trumpet, violin and accordion, and not particularly well. If unauthorized performers get caught, they are fined $55.

"They are there as a form of business," Naso said. "To make money fast. There is no artistic side. What we do is more artistic."

Naso has begun to designate and spruce up performance areas in a few big stations. Overall, though, he lets buskers determine questions of turf among themselves, intervening only if there are disputes over prime spots.

Rules or no rules, Naso's headquarters isn't the usual dour outpost of French bureaucracy. The cramped, three-story storefront, located near Place de la Bastille, has a raffish charm. Film posters -- "Ocean's Eleven," "Moulin Rouge" -- share space with clippings about artists for whom the Paris subway was a stop on the way to fortune: Afro-British singer Khezia Jones; members of the French-born Gipsy Kings; and Laam, a French Tunisian, faux-blond street diva with a rags-to-riches story and a taste for wide-brimmed hats. Word has it that U.S. blues man Ben Harper also played in the Metro at some point, according to Naso.

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