Daily News
Sunday, April 8, 2001
Life Line section - City, page 16

Subway Conductors
Some of the city's most talented
and unusual musicians work undergroun


We have ridden in from the far corners of Brooklyn, from Canarsie and East New York, Bushwick, Greenpoint and Williamsburg. After rumbling under the East River, many of us pour off the L train at Union Square and shuffle up three flights of packed stairs. Everyone knows the drill.

As we near the mezzanine, we hear it, faint at first, then louder. It's a high, whistling sound, spooky yet very beautiful. It booms off the tile walls, growing louder, and only when we reach the top of the stairs can we see what it is.

It is Natalia Paruz, seated against the wall of the mezzanine, a radiant smile on her face as she draws a violin bow across the toothless edge of a simple handsaw. With her left hand she bends and twists the saw's blade, coaxing out those lovely, keening notes. Those of us who pause soon realize we're hearing a version of "Somewhere My Love" unlike any we have ever heard before.

"It's amazing she can do that with a saw!" cries Sidney Burke, a homeless man pushing his cartthrough the station.

Everyone within earshot nods in agreement.

"It's fantastic," says Ettie Steg, a graphic designer headed to a business appointment. "I've never seen a saw player before. I've heard about it in folklore, but I've never seen it."

The audience continues to grow as Paruz, backed by a tape on a battered boom box, launches into her repertoire of show tunes, movie themes and a Bach chorale.

The expressions on her listeners' faces range from stunned wonder to delight. Somehow, these harried New York commuters have realized they can afford to step off the treadmill and enjoy a few moments of unanticipated joy. And it doesn't cost a dime.

"I think having music in the subway is great," Steg continues, "because it restores my human feelings, makes me more creative, more friendly toward other people. It makes me more optimistic about the life of the city."

Steg drops a dollar bill in Paruz' tip can. "I wish I had a ten," she says, prying herself away and heading to her business meeting uptown.

Paruz acknowledges the tip with a smile of genuine gratitude. She's one of more than 100 unpaid musicians in the Music Under New York program that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been running at two dozen subway stations since 1987.

The program's musical menu mirrors the city's global makeup. Styles range from jazz, reggae, gospel, R&B, bossa nova and calypso to doo wop, classical and opera; instruments range from the human voice to guitars, flutes, saxophones, steel drums, sitars, harps, spoons, llama toenails and, of course, musical saws.

"I love it," Paruz says of playing her saw underground, which she has been doing for the last six years.

A native of Israel, Paruz, 28, came to New York 10 years ago to study dance with the Martha Graham company. When an accident cut short her dancing career, she learned to play the saw and took her act underground. She considers it a dream venue.

"The ones who don't like what I'm doing just keep going," she says. "But so many people do like it. They stop, they talk to me. I love the interaction, the instant feedback."

As she's speaking, a more elaborate performance is taking place in the subway station beneath Grand Central Terminal. Agua Clara, a quintet from South America, is attracting a throng of commuters with songs that seem to descend from the thin air of the Andes Mountains. There are guitars, flutes and breathy wind pipes known as "sikus"; the rhythm section consists of a simple Peruvian box drum, cymbals, cowbells, shimmering chimes and a rattling strand of llama toenails.

"In the subway, you are closer to the people," says Angel Marin, the group's Ecuadoran guitarist.

"Here, people can ask questions — about where we come from, about our strange instruments. The people from Ecuador and Peru, sometimes they cry because they miss their country."

As it turns out, homesick South Americans aren't the only ones who respond to Agua Clara's haunting songs. Barbara Pouncie-Hopkins, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, can't stop moving to the infectious Andean rhythms.

"It's very uplifting," she says. "Very spiritual. It touches my soul."

Of course you can't please all of the people all of the time. One disheveled soul wanders past, bellowing over the music: "Forget this! What about Jesus Christ?"

"I won't say we never get complaints," admits Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA's Arts for Transit program, which runs Music Under New York. "But I'd say 99% of the comments we get are positive.

"New York is a challenge, and the music takes people's minds off the daily issues of life. It gives them a chance to pause, stop, get caught up in the music. When tourists hear it, they're excited that they've had this authentic New York moment. But it's not a tourist thing. It's a daily New York thing. We are targeting the commuter who takes public transit every day. Our goal is to make that a delightful experience."

Which is not to say that an audience of appreciative tourists is unwelcome. Joseph Jones — known universally as "Mr. Spoons" — is working his magic with his rattling spoons in the subway station beneath Sixth Ave. and 34th St. when a gaggle of German tourists happens by.

Mr. Spoons, a 67-year-old native of Cincinnati and one of the original participants in Music Under New York, lights up when one of the Germans starts videotaping the performance. Instead of tapping his spoons on his own arms, legs, cheeks, nose and fingertips, he makes use of one German gentleman's particularly ample beer gut.

The laughter of the man's traveling companions can be heard all the way upstairs in Macy's. New York moments don't get much more authentic than that.

"This shows you a man'll do anything to keep from working," Mr. Spoons says, moving through his repertoire of bluegrass, big band and Western swing.

He nods at his boom box. "I could have rap music on there and make a lot more money — but I can't stand the stuff!"

On this day he's wearing a shirt with Technicolor polka-dots. His blue eyes never stop dancing, and his spoons never stop moving. He looks like an overgrown leprechaun who's having the time of his life.

Does it bother him that those Germans tourists looked at him like he's a little nutty?

"No, because I am nutty. The truth don't hurt anybody. And I don't mind being nutty!"

The next afternoon, the "stage" under Grand Central Terminal is occupied by alto saxophonist Daniel Carter and drummer Tom Bruno, half of the jazz quartet Test.

"I don't look at this as a concert," Bruno says during a break. "It's planting a seed. We're trying to bring a cutting-edge style to the public."

Both men remember the bad old days of playing on the streets and in the subways — and getting routinely rousted by the police.

"This is better because you know you have a place to play," says Bruno, one of the first to petition the MTA to start the Music Under New York program back in the 1980s. "There's a certain amount of protection by being part of the system."

Adds Carter, "I think it's a crying shame that in a city like New York there's not more support for musicians and other artists. Having this is better than being thrown out in the street and hassled."

No one involved in the program would disagree, Least of all Susan Cagle, 21, the lead guitarist of the Cagle Family, a pop group that comprises of her parents and nine siblings. On a recent afternoon, the group was tossed out of the Times Square station because their unscheduled appearance drew a station-clogging crowd.

"If you're too loud or you're drawing too big a crowd, they can tell you to go," Cagle says with a matter-of-fact shrug as she and her siblings set up their equipment for a scheduled gig.

"But most of the cops are really tolerant."

And why is that?

"Because they like the music too."

With that, the band kicks in. The commuters stop dead in their tracks. And another New York moment is born.


So you want to be a rock 'n' roll —or jazz or reggae or gospel — star? And you want to start out underground?

You have until Monday, April 16, to submit a tape to the MTA's Music Under New York program. While all styles are welcome, remember that groups must be small and volume must be kept under control.

"Please keep in mind that this is a subway station, not a nightclub or Carnegie Hall," says Gina Higginbotham, the consultant for Music Under New York. "Space is limited and we cannot be too loud."

Tapes should include two or three songs. Home-made tapes are acceptable. Include your name, address, phone number and a short biographical note. Send them to: Music Under New York, c/o Performing in Public Spaces, 204 W. 80th St., New York, NY, 10024. No drop-ins will be accepted.

A small panel of musicians and subway officials will consider all tapes. Performers deemed suitable for the Music Under New York program will be invited to a one-day audition, which will be held in late May in Grand Central Terminal. (Applicants will be notified in early May whether they have been selected for the Grand Central audition.)

Original Publication Date: 4/8/01