Home View from Underground A little bit of Mexico musically in the subways

A little bit of Mexico musically in the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

A group of norteno musicians serenade the 7 train. (Photo by flickr user ChrisGoldNY)

For many subway riders, the appearance of a Mexican band during a commute home may often be an unwelcome one. The music is loud; the panhandling aggressive. It’s a disruption to the privacy of a subway ride. Still, it’s easy to forget that these musicians are oftentimes poor immigrants looking to make a few bucks and exploit their skills.

Over the weekend, The Times ran an excellent profile of these musicians — properly known as norteños for the type of music they play — and I found the piece a fascinating glimpse into a world often unknown by most of us. Kirk Semple spoke with a variety of these norteños to draw up a picture of the bands. He writes:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules of conduct include an array of regulations that could, and often do, snag the bands, including a prohibition on playing musical instruments on subway trains. Fines, often $75 each, are a regular part of the job, several musicians said. So is detention, often involving an overnight stay in jail and sometimes a punishment of community service, if rarely anything more severe than that. For those in the United States illegally, civil violations like those are usually not enough to prompt a check of immigration status.

But even though $75 is a good day’s earnings on the subway, the musicians seem to regard these penalties as tolerable occupational hazards. “Our babies have to eat something; we have to eat something,” Mr. Tigre, 41, who is divorced and has three American-born children, said with a shrug. “If I had a steady job, I wouldn’t play in the train.”

The groups’ growth has paralleled the rising number of Mexicans in New York and the surging popularity of norteño music. A decade ago, the musicians say, there were only a few norteño bands plying the subway system. By the estimates of several players, there are now at least 15, though nobody is sure of the exact number because the groups are continually forming, changing members and dissolving. Their paths usually cross only underground, in quick, joking encounters that allow them to swap gossip and information about police sightings.

The article delves into the ins and outs of navigating the system as well. Some bands play only on certain segments. One, for instance, avoids police by sticking to the B or D trains north of 125th Sts., and most musicians say they try to avoid the mid-afternoon when school kids “heckle and yell, push and shove.” Some adults too grow hostile and abusive toward the musicians.

It might be annoying to find these musicians in a subway car, and it might be illegal as well. But it’s annoying and illegal with a little bit of character. I’d take the norteños over a crazy preacher any day of the week.

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Vinny February 16, 2011 - 12:25 pm

I actually have been seeing this one guy for years and I finally had a camera at the ready to grab a video of his performance. He’s really talented.

Soy El Camino

You’re right, by the way. I would rather see these guys than some kid selling candy to put a little money in his pocket and stay out of trouble (anyone who sees that will get the joke) or the beggars or preachers.

JP February 16, 2011 - 12:52 pm

The preachers are really annoying as often they don’t want a handout, but just to exercise freedom of speech, freedom of religion. I need to start exercising my right to tell them to shut up.

Phil February 16, 2011 - 1:27 pm

There was one preacher who started shouting next to me and it sounded like he was about to say Allah and for a split second I thought I was about to be blown up by a suicide bomber. Ended up just being some weirdo talking about Jesus but his English was horrible so I doubt anyone understood him.

tacony palmyra February 16, 2011 - 2:19 pm

I’m occasionally annoyed by musicians in the stations when they’re playing very loud, annoying, amplified music to a huge crowd of tourists who are standing in my way. The norteño bands have never bothered me.

Edward February 16, 2011 - 3:08 pm

Good point. I truly don’t understand why the MTA insists on letting people bang loudly on overturned buckets on a crowded platform at Union Square. It’s so damn noisy, you can’t hear any announcements and you get a headache after 3 mins. As if the subway weren’t loud enough. How about piping in some Percy Faith to calm everyone down a bit?

Alon Levy February 16, 2011 - 7:01 pm

Why, are the announcements audible when there’s no music playing?

skunky February 18, 2011 - 11:20 am

also, hand out xanax

pea-jay February 16, 2011 - 3:17 pm

As long as there is some talent, I welcome just about any music style, not just nortenos. What I cant stand in the performance category are the “dancers” that occupy a doorway area with clunky movements and somewhat dangerous amount of kicking and jumping to a canned rap song on a boombox. Those guys are annoying. Not the musicians.

John-2 February 16, 2011 - 2:25 pm

Put bar cars on the subway with strolling Mexican musicians while people are drinking margaritas and tequila shots and then the MTA’s got something (“Jay’s Cantina” in honor of the agency’s chairman?)

al February 16, 2011 - 2:41 pm

I think thats some more feasible on the commuter trains. If I remember correctly, there were lounge cars at one time.

tacony palmyra February 17, 2011 - 9:48 am

The bar cars on the MNRR New Haven Line are still operating, although only on a couple rush hour trains coming out of the city. Apparently they’re going to be retrofitting new bar cars into the new M8s as well thought. DNAInfo just had an article yesterday: http://www.dnainfo.com/2011021.....rth-trains

I’d like to see them put them on the other MNRR lines and LIRR. They’re a cash cow. People who want the luxury of buying drinks on-board will pay a premium for it. Definitely not a good idea on the subway though… too crowded, first of all. Nobody wants people spilling drinks all over the place.

Max S. (WilletsPoint-SheaStadium) February 16, 2011 - 2:26 pm

Despite this being annoying for most, I think these musicians are truly apart of the culture and social being that the NYC Subway System embodies. I grew up listening to these guys play everywhere, so much so that I even wrote music about it!

Self promotion aside, here’s a link to my junior college recital, portraying the sounds of the subways through music. The piece ultimately ends with a Mariachi band ignored by commuters and a catastrophic crash on the (G) via Queens Blvd:


Even as a kid in high school I would perform on subway platforms, strategically choosing stations and avoiding the police. Surprisingly, Grand Central on the (7) was a good spot as all the police were upstairs worrying about the terminal.

PW February 16, 2011 - 3:20 pm

I just turn up the volume on my mp3 player. Works for preachers, musicians, panhandlers etc.

Guy February 16, 2011 - 3:42 pm

^Works for everthing and everyone excerpt for the two people sitting next to you who have to put up with your louder music, of course…

Tsuyoshi February 16, 2011 - 8:35 pm

Not necessarily. The problem where you hear other people’s music on the train is that most people are using cheap headphones. With decent headphones (which can cost as little as $20 at the low end) you have to set the volume at really ear-splitting volumes before anyone else can hear it.

petey February 16, 2011 - 4:41 pm

yes, these guys are quality. but i’m a grump, i’d like to ban all the sound not absolutely necessary to the operation of the subway. but in the first instance, this means others’ mouths, not their instruments. good kee-rist, what will it be like if cellphones are enabled?

Benjamin Kabak February 16, 2011 - 4:43 pm

It will be the same as it is now for the millions of riders in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx who take elevated trains. The vast majority of people keep their conversations to a minimum and are mindful of the volume. It’s not an epidemic of cell phone noise in the wilds of those faraway lands.

petey February 17, 2011 - 1:35 pm

poor me, i live in manhattan 🙁

Joseph Alacchi February 16, 2011 - 9:16 pm

Are there any places in your Subway where musicians can play legally? In Montreal, we have one per station and they are very popular both with the musicians and the public.

Benjamin Kabak February 16, 2011 - 9:18 pm

Yep. It’s all part of the Music Under New York program run by Arts for Transit.

Christopher Stephens February 17, 2011 - 6:39 pm

The existence of the Music Under New York program really decreases my sympathy for all the other performers. There’s a legal way to do this sort of thing (busking by playing music), but these guys think that the rules don’t apply to them.

Ben February 17, 2011 - 6:52 pm

Actually, according to the actual rules of conduct (section 1050.6, paragraph 3, covering non-transit uses of the system), you can play legally in any station, provided you are not

(B) within a distance of 25 feet of a station booth, or a fare media sales device including but not limited to a fare media vending machine; or, (C ) within a distance of 50 feet from the marked entrance to an Authority office or tower

The MUNY program is the MTA’s way of making sure the high-visibility spots are used by people they don’t mind having be highly visible, but busking in stations is perfectly fine, provided you’re not blocking traffic or making a (carefully defined, but probably somewhat randomly enforced) “excessive noise.”

Andrew February 20, 2011 - 9:44 am

But busking on the trains themselves is never permitted, and with good reason.

skunky February 18, 2011 - 11:19 am

“[T]he panhandling aggressive”? These guys are some of the most polite people I’ve ever seen holding out their cowboy hat on the subway. On what basis do you make that statement, BK?

Benjamin Kabak February 18, 2011 - 11:20 am

Sorry. I wasn’t clear on that point. That’s how some riders view the disruption, not all.

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