Sounds From Below: Metro Buskers of Montreal

Daniel Rivera playing the Ukulele on a Saturday morning at Square Victoria Station. Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

Daniel Rivera playing the Ukulele on a Saturday morning at Square Victoria Station.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

On most days, pedestrians wandering around Montreal can catch a hint of a musical note dancing playfully over the din of traffic and construction, the sound wafting up from the halls of the metro stations below.

“Why do I busk? I do it because it’s fun.”

– Daniel Rivera

Whether catching the metro home from work, taking a shortcut through Place des Arts, or passing by the steps to Square Victoria Station, it seems like it’s not hard to find music in downtown Montreal.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

The metro buskers have seen to that. Many of them belong to Le Regroupement des Musiciens du Métro de Montréal (RMMM), or MusiMétroMontréal for short, which allows musicians to play in designated spots in the metros around the city.

There is a code of conduct which outlines the rules for musicians regarding booking times, to ensure that soloists get as much time as groups, and instructions on decorum and presentation. But by doing so MusiMétroMontréal ensures that these skillful buskers will continue to have spots and locations to play at, spots that are often warm, dry, and feature impressive acoustics.

Daniel Rivera, who started busking in the metro a year ago, can often be found strumming his ukulele and singing soulfully in Spanish in the long slanted hallway of Square Victoria Station.

People often look fascinated and excited by his music. On this particular morning, a passer-by let loose an exuberant vocal trill, and then he started dancing and clapping along with the music as he headed towards the metro train.

”Why do I busk?” Rivera said when he was asked what attracts him back to the spot in the long tan-coloured tunnel week after week. “I do it because it’s fun.”

“Busking is my way of having a positive impact in the city where I live.”

– Daniel Rivera

Rivera began busking a year ago. But energizing and serenading commuters with his ukulele isn’t his only musical pursuit. He also plays bass and sings for The Comfort Kills, a Montreal punk/rock indie band who already has their demo track “Paradiddle” released on Bandcamp.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

But Rivera insists that busking holds a particular charm, that it’s a way to connect to people in a more profound way than playing on a stage.

“I like having a place to perform anytime that I want. I like to observe the people as they pass. I like noticing their reactions to my music. I like being engaging and looking at people in the eyes and smiling as they pass. It’s a brief moment of connection with a total stranger,” Rivera said. “In some way you touch them and you contribute to lightening their day. Busking is my way of having a positive impact in the city where I live.”

“Busking has definitely been a great way for me to connect with people.”

– Ukpöng “Mr. Pöng” Etang

Ukpöng “Mr. Pöng” Etang playing the steelpan drum during rush hour at McGill Station.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

For Ukpöng “Mr. Pöng” Etang, playing the steelpan has been a lifelong love.

“I started playing at the age of nine. My elementary school music teacher, Salah Wilson, started an after school music program based on the steelpan and that is how I got involved with the instrument,” Etang said. “I learned a lot as I went along through the countless songs I’ve played. I’ve also developed a pretty good ear.”

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

With each strike of the stick against the playing surface, Etang’s skillful notes whimsically pierce the air, while accompanying beats play through the microcube amp at his feet. The blend of the Caribbean steelpan sound combined with favourite and familiar tunes, like this summer’s popular radio track “Despacito,” brought a smile to many evening commuters’ weary faces as they hustled through the station.

However, Etang still wants to improve. He is now working through an online music theory course from Juilliard’s School of Music.

“I believe taking the theory course will help me with my improvisation and creativity,” Etang said. “It will also help me speak the language of music more proficiently which will come in handy when collaborating with other musicians.”

“I’m glad that Montreal appreciates its buskers.”

– Ukpöng “Mr. Pöng” Etang

Etang said that playing in the metro not only gives him regular practice which is especially crucial for those last minute gigs, but that it has helped him make connections with other musicians and with those in the “entertainment ecosystem.”

But it hasn’t been all about the networking. Etang relishes the opportunity to promote an unconventional instrument like the steelpan, which he says is the instrument of rebellion.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

Originally fashioned out of oil barrels, the steelpan grew from its humble roots in Trinidad and Tobago during the early 20th century into an intriguing and vibrant instrument.

For pannists like Etang, mastering the steelpan is important to the promotion of a relatively young instrument. Its significance has even prompted the creation of the International Steelpan Festival of Montreal, of which Etang is a seven-time champion.

But there is one more thing that Etang loves about busking: the people.

“I love meeting all kinds of people from different walks of life, making them smile, creating intrigue, learning from them, and sharing experiences,” Etang said. “Busking has definitely been a great way for me to connect with people and I’m glad that Montreal appreciates its buskers.”

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

Tati Marazzo and André Galamba of Duo Marabá heat up the Place des Arts Metro station with their Brazilian sound.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

And for those looking for the spicy and romantic sounds of Brazil, Duo Marabá frequently plays just inside the entrance of the Place des Arts metro.

“We love the acoustics here,” Tati Marazzo said.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens

It’s thanks to the low ceilings at the Place de Arts metro that Marazzo’s sensual voice and André Galamba’s hip-swaying guitar solos radiates around the ticket booth and down the steps to the train platform below.

Even in the halls of Place des Arts that stretch just beyond the double doors beside the designated playing spot, the sweet Brazilian rhythms of Duo Marabá call to visitors.

“To be a community of musicians that help each other is great.”

– Duo Marabá

Both Marazzo and Galamba are originally from Brazil, and they have lived in Canada for a year and eight years, respectively. However, they only recently started busking in the metros this year.

But what they love about being a playing in the metros in Montreal is the community of musicians that have developed around the buskers.

“To be a community of musicians that help each other is great,” Marazzo said. She explained that there is nothing like MusiMétroMontréal in Brazil.

And with that, Duo Marabá finished setting up and settled into doing what they do best — entrancing Montrealers with their soft enthralling melodies.

So if you find yourself in Montreal this year, be sure to hop on the metro as you explore around the city. You may get the pleasure of seeing one of these very talented musicians, and others from MusiMétroMontréal, as they serenade travellers and commuters of all ages.

Photo credit: Samantha Stevens