As a self-described “pioneer” of Latin America’s creative industry development, the City of Buenos Aires holds itself in high regard when it comes to the economic and social benefits of its rapidly emerging “creative economy”.
Focusing on a wide range of industry segments, from design to music, the city’s busy cultural calendar has something to offer for citizens and tourists of all ages. Yet, Buenos Aires is also renowned for its thriving underground scene, and accessing this can be as easy as taking a ride on the nearest subte line.
As Latin America’s oldest underground transport system – and the dreaded nemesis of both rush hour commuters and B Line users – the Buenos Aires subte is also home to one of the city’s more diverse live music scenes.
For some artists, the subte represents the irresistible opportunity for development, daily practice, and consistent performance to a daily audience of up to 1m commuters. For others, the need has more to do with economic survival.
“I found myself in a lot of circumstances that I didn’t hope for,” says saxophonist Maria De Vittorio. “I have been playing the saxophone for 28 years, and three years ago I began to play in the subte… above all else in order to find work.”
With an estimated 2,000 registered artists now performing both on and beneath the city streets, public performances provide a vital economic lifeline to those working in a profession not known for financial stability. It is a tough but expected reality, and one with which De Vittorio is intimately familiar.
“There are not many opportunities to perform in the city, and there is not an artistic emphasis on the part of the state, at least not beyond the minimum. The people here [in the subte], they take my cards, and they call or contact me for events, to be students… it is a form of living that I like.”
For other artists, such as violinist Alan Macedonio, underground recitals provide some respite from the nocturnal grind of the performance life. As a nightly member of the San Martín Philharmonic Orchestra, Macedonio plays underground for nothing more than pleasure, and as such, is not keen on following the strict licensing rules that govern public performances. He much prefers his own schedule.
“I studied in the San Martín music conservatory, and I play in the philharmonic orchestra, as well as in a tango orchestra on Thursdays,” says Macedonio. “Here [in the subte] you have to request permission to play. I don’t request permission because they give you a specific time and a specific place that you have to play. Personally, that doesn’t work for me.”
Asked about the lessons he has learned from years of playing beneath the city’s streets, Macedonio takes a moment to think, before playfully responding: “I just keep moving… you always have to find a space.”
Echoing similar sentiments – and highlighting the underground’s regional diversity – Colombian guitarist and vocalist Alberto Luna shares Macedonio’s disdain for the technical formalities of the governing law.
“They want you to ask for permission, but really, the situation is fucked,” says an impassioned Luna. “While yes, there are some people who it benefits to come only for a short period of time, generally, as musicians, we manage the schedule among ourselves.”
With the potential for metropolitan police harassment always just on the next platform, what, for Luna, makes the adventure all worth it?
“The people,” he says, “the people are wonderful. The public has always responded very well to the music, and for that I am happy.”
From brass to strings, casual performers to professionals, foreigners to locals, you never know what you will find when venturing beneath the city’s sleepless streets.
As one of the very few (if only) classically trained harpists to perform on the subte, César Legrine falls into a class of special performers that are hard to miss. Based out of the Corrientes station on the H Line, Legrine focuses his 20 years of classical experience on spreading “buena onda” (good vides) to the thousands of citizens and tourists who pass by him on a daily basis.
“Playing here is more beautiful than playing in the theatre,” he says, beaming. “Here I find my students. It is here that I find my work. It is not only about the money, but it is also about making other people feel happy. The music gives them [the people] happiness.”
While acknowledging the very real difficulties of playing for an audience that is constantly on the go, Legrine takes pride in providing the city’s pedestrian traffic with at least one moment of creative relief from the trials and tribulations of daily life.
“The people always pass by thinking about work,” he says, “they run by, you know? Still, people stop… they stop and they listen.”
In a clear sign that his good vibes are working, Legrine was the recent recipient of a new harp… a gift from an appreciative subte rider who later became a student.
“What can I say?” he asks with a smile, “This is my life.”
Camera & editing by Meghan McDonough