Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'Hear the sound of distant drums'

El and his friend Sa have a natural rhythm to everything they do. A smooth rhythm to how they walk, and speak, and, especially, how they make music.

They're percussionists, part of a larger group known as The Last Drummers (of Yisrael), which plays on subway lines all over the city.

El is originally from Israel – he wears a blue bracelet in Hebrew script – and now lives in The Bronx. He and Sa have been playing drums in the Subway for ten years or so. El says he was about 16 when he started.

And they don’t just play underground. “Yeah, we play with bands, DJs, everything,” El says. “We’ve played in Chicago, Philly, all over.”

He says there’s about 30 drummers all told in their group and they cover pretty much the whole subway network. “We see the others around,” Sa says, but they don’t really meet up formally to compare notes.

El says they play underground for about “five or six hours a day”.

And when they get into a Subway car, their natural showmanship takes over and they can hold their audience rapt as they start up the beat. I’m pretty sure they always get a round of applause when they’re done.

They may even be the guys I wrote about here but I can’t be sure. When I asked if they played the F line, they just said “we’re all over the place.”

If they are, then that's one more wonderful thing about the Subway that brings them around again. If they aren’t, then I’m just glad there are at least two groups of traveling drummers who can make me smile like this.

"Remember, folks," said El as they were leaving the car, "it's only cloudy outside, never inside."


Vicente is a mariachi guitarist from Mexico and plays and sings on the subway with his friend who’s a fiddler.

He says he has been playing on the subway for about five years. I rode with the two of them for one station stop and as they got out to move to the next carriage he slipped me a business card from ‘Gonzalez y Gonzalez’, a Mexican restaurant and bakery on Broadway.


On my way home this evening I saw a Chinese gentleman playing an Er-hu, a two-stringed violin-type instrument that sounded a little like a fiddle from around the tunnel corner. He told me he was from Beijing and his name was Wei Jung, or Wei Zhung – I only had a few seconds to talk with him and I’m reporting phonetically.


As you’ll know if you’ve spent any time underground here, one of the amazing things about the Subway is the range of musical cultures on offer and nationalities of the players you encounter.

Today was Bloomsday, so the Irish also got sort of a look-in. Since there isn’t really an MTA station that’s even remotely associated with James Joyce, I went for the nearest Irish literary name I could find.

So I tried to have a mostly Irish setlist today in a nod of the head to my homeplace.


Shattered Cross – Stuart Adamson
Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
Arthur McBride – Paul Brady
Nothing But The Same Old Story – Paul Brady
Whiskey In The Jar – Thin Lizzy
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2
May You Never – John Martyn
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live – Bruce Springsteen
Into The Mystic – Van Morrison
Lakes Of Pontchartrain – Paul Brady
1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson
My Beautiful Reward – Bruce Springsteen
Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson
Rise – Eddie Vedder
Never Tire Of The Road – Andy Irvine

(Given where I was, unfortunately I didn't get a chance to learn and play Brian Kennedy's excellent song "Christopher Street" - maybe next time).

All told I played for about an hour and 45 minutes and made two dollars. A hundred per cent more than yesterday, and two dollars more than the corresponding day last week. So I’m trending in the right direction. If I was reporting quarterly earnings. I’d be a ‘strong buy’.

But there were some technical difficulties on the first BuskerCam experiment, I’m afraid.

I taped the camera to my shirt front about where the pocket would be. I was hoping it would capture people’s reactions as they either walked past, or came over to put something in the case. Problem was, there was just way too much movement in the resulting clip, almost to the point of inducing seasickness, so I won't inflict that on you.

I’ll have another go tomorrow, when maybe I’ll try taping the camera to the case itself.


  1. Hi Steve,

    What do you think of Dunkin Donuts hiring buskers?



  2. Hi Natalia;
    Thanks - I hadn't seen that.
    I wonder how much they sponsored them for (and for how long)?