Street Musicians

...Out of Nowhere comes a Mornful melody, or Perhaps a Fragment of a Waltz

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | June 2007

It is a Wednesday in early May, late morning. The U1 Subway is lightly filled with riders scattered one or two to a booth, reading or staring out the window. The sun is streaming in. It feels particularly serene; the hectic rush of commuters long since over. Occasionally a cell phone rings, but the city at midday belongs to another kind of traveler, whose time, for better or for worse, is much more his own.

In the newspaper, headlines lead to speculation about the upcoming French election, a runoff between the brilliant but divisive Nicholas Sarkozy and the charismatic Segolene Royal, ‘a clear choice with no solution,’ a French friend had commented, who fears riots in the immigrant banlieux should the conservative "Sarko" win the runoff.

In Turkey, fears of a Putsch in Parliament over the presidential candidature of the Islamist Abdullah Gul are provoking outrage among the secular establishment. Again the issues are blurred: Is a moderate Islamist president a threat to Turkish democracy? Does secularism still ensure an open society after it becomes the power elite?

Everywhere, there are stories of populations on the march. And if the cultural conflicts are not quite a "Clash of Civilizations," they are certainly putting values and definitions to the test.

The mind wanders, the quiet of the train settles over the passengers; people are reading, or staring out the window, just sitting, lost in thought.

…There is music somewhere, a fragment of a waltz sighing from an accordion, intimate and seductive. …Then a melody, the thin voice of a violin sliding through it, while a tambourine shimmers to the three-four pulse.

I turn. Three people have entered the train and stand in the center of the car between the doors, two men and a woman; their features are dark and gaunt, the accordionist leaning back against a pole, the tambourine player against the divider for support.

Their heads nod just slightly, in sync, as they play. The volume stays low, the music quiet and sweet and surprisingly moving, the extraordinary heritage of Central Europe, a knowing sadness infused with the possibility of hope.

Suddenly, the train pulls into a station; the doors open and the music stops.  Two officials are standing between the musicians, pads in hand, taking down their identification, filling out citations. The musicians are passive and give the information quietly. The train starts up again. There is no resistance. Nobody looks very happy. It’s all very depressing.

Approaching the next stop, I gather up my things to get off. I start toward the front of the car, then change my mind and turn back toward the middle and the musicians. I slide between one of the officials and two of the players. As I pass the woman, I smile at her. "Schöne Musik," I comment in a low voice. The slightest of smiles lifts the corner of her mouth. I leave the train.

In the station, I buy a copy of the Augustin: Friday, Apr. 13 was the day of the "Little Vienna Accordion Festival," throughout the U-Bahn system, a citizen protest against the restrictions on street musicians in this, the Capital City of Music. Two weeks later, it seems, they are still trying to be heard. I read further.

"The assumption that something that costs nothing is also worth nothing is astonishing to me, and sounds like the expression of collective insanity," writes accordionist Walther Soyka.

"Today, I am convinced that money earned by a street musician is the most honorable wage there is."

Other articles from this issue