Subway buskers set mood for busy commuters
Matthew Coutts, ctvtoronto.ca
Published Tuesday, December 27, 2011 8:00AM EST
Thousands of huddled commuters who shrug their way through Toronto's crowded subway system each day barely manage eye contact with one another, jockeying their way down stairs and up escalators in an attempt to escape the dull lights and dirty walls of stations across the city.
But a cadre a subway musicians such as Adam Solomon do their best to soothe the frazzled nerves of TTC passengers by strumming guitars, banging on bongos and singing solos in exchange for compliments and the occasional donation.
"Most people have stress when they go to work. When they hear music sometimes they will come up and say, ‘You made my day,'" Solomon told CTV Toronto recently, taking a break from playing holiday favourites for a stream of shopping bag-laden commuters at the Yonge-Bloor subway station. "I find people like what I am playing most of the time."
The job of subway busker is not one that leads to a quick retirement. Performers can average about $50 for a couple hours of work, but the experience is one that keeps drawing talent back to the underground.
Each year, the TTC holds an extensive application process, weaning hundreds of potential candidates down to 75 who will receive a licence to perform at 25 stations across the city.
The final decision on who gets a permit to play on TTC property is made at an American Idol-style casting call during Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition.
Solomon, 48, has been a TTC busker on and off for the past 15 years. The blues musician, who won a Juno in 1995, came to Canada from Kenya in 1992 to promote the growth of African music.
Solomon started performing in the TTC in the early 1990s and picks up gigs at music festivals as well as the occasional tour.
Four or five days a week Solomon will carry his equipment, a gleaming tan electric guitar and an amp, to a busy spot on the subway stations and plays what he refers to as African renaissance blues – a mix of slick guitar licks and lyrical twang.
"I play in the subway first of all because I live in the city and call it my home," Solomon said. "It is good for me because I entertain the people in my area, and sometimes they buy my music."
The holidays are an especially busy time of year for the talented guitarist who is frequently hired to entertain at Christmas staff parties and catered events.
During a recent event at the Mandarin Restaurant, Solomon had a crown of public service workers up and dancing and then behind the microphone singing alone.
Despite his success outside of his TTC busking duties, Solomon returns to the subway caverns on a near-daily basis, where he accepts with joy the smiles and thumbs up from passengers and TTC employees alike.
Fellow busker Andrew Lopatin agrees with Solomon's take on the job. The 21-year-old guitarist has been performing in the subway for several years and says getting the chance to play and make a little money has given him a chance to grow as an artist.
"The best way to be paid at the end of the day is to know that you made somebody's day just by playing in the subway. Just by doing what you like to do," Lopatin said.
With files from CTV Toronto's Andria Case