By Cody Kenner
Boston is home to a diverse cast of characters, as many notice from a mere casual glance across its busy streets. This ensemble is at its most diverse in the great underground halls of public transit. The T is where people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and classes flock in order to traverse the mazelike city. Consequently, it is also naturally attracts a variety of street musicians of differing backgrounds. These people stake out spots in the most trafficked areas of the major T stations and play for hours on end, hoping for tips or at the very least exposure. Whatever the case, each artist has a story to tell. The short profiles below are merely a scant detailing of Boston public transit’s vast company of musicians.
Bringing a refreshing sound to a city far from the southern United States border, this man plays a rousing Latin American ballad on a classical guitar. He also accompanies himself with an Andean pan flute, or zampoña. His ability to multitask, much as a guitarist playing harmonica would, is impressive. The lyrics, though indecipherable to those with a limited lexicon of Spanish, add a haunting and mournful tinge to the tune. The sound is full-bodied and soulful, out of place in a busy, indifferent T station, where only a scant few stop to appreciate the lively music.
Funk is not an oft-heard genre within the Boston T system. Unapologetically hip—despite the low quality of the synth samples—this musician reminds the businessmen and exhausted working-class Bostonians that there is always time to get down and let yourself go, even in the cold, friendless streets of Boston. His voice is smooth and unornamented, and an inviting call to dance, and his keyboard playing is decidedly groovy. For a T station performance, his amp and mic setup does a surprisingly good job of filling up the space of the platform. No doubt the T denizens of the Orange Line find themselves foot-tapping to his sensual beats.
This guy’s flow is awesome, as is his lyrical wit: “Spitting shit like nitroglycerin / When I hit this green / Fresh burst like Listerine!” He is part of a collective called Wreck Shop Movement that utilizes their T station cipher (freestyle rap battle) as a mode of promotion. The collective, made up of over twenty diverse DJs, MCs and producers, aims to “build[…] community, spread. . .knowledge, love and further. . .hip hop culture,” according to their website’s mission statement. In a city with typically infrequent willing public interaction, it is refreshing to see a collective draw in musicians from all over Boston to perform publicly. One can only hope that their notoriety within Boston flourishes.
Bringing Appalachian dance to the danceless winter wastes of the north, this fiddler bows her strings until they sing, squeezing out every bit of tonality possible. Dressed in a blue beret and casual clothes, the fiddler’swarm smile belies her unabated enjoyment of the instrument, and the audience admires her as one might admire a musically talented elder relative. Regardless of the audience, however, the woman is content as she rings the sweet tune of southern rurality throughout the noisy concrete tunnels of Boston.
With a dazzling light display (just a simple party light that syncs with audio) and classy attire, Ms. Luo is an immediate attention-grabber. What is most intriguing, of course, is her Lindsey Sterling-esque violin cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” accompanied only by the song’s backing track. Her reworking of the song is an excellently executed rendition that surely deserves a place on a string-based cover album. Much unlike the above mentioned violin performance, Luo’s musicianship wows with technicality rather than soul.
This elderly Chinese man’s jittery bowing of a one-stringed erhu sounds squeaky and atonal with a passing listen, but a finer tuning of the ear reveals a lively folk dance-type tune of East Asian origin. Usually sporting a simple Nike jacket and jeans, he is a quite frequent performer at the Green Line platform of Park Street, and is also known to play at the Orange Line Chinatown stop. His performance is a heartwarming picture of old age enlivened by timeless music.
Keytar Bear is without a doubt the most notable Boston street musician. Dressed as a bear mascot wearing a letterman jacket, he is at once a pleasing sight to behold. His keytar skills are unparalleled, and his head bobbing and bear kisses only enhance his lovability. He effortlessly switches from cover to cover, riffing off of timeless American pop tunes like “Beat It,” “Fly Like An Eagle,” and “Oh, What A Night.” Keytar Bear is loved by countless Bostonians: pedestrians frequently pose in selfies with him, and those unfamiliar with the legend of the bear stare in awe. When he performed in May 2014 to a packed room at The Middle East, the whole crowd went wild, and at the end of his set, loudly demanded an encore. A whole article could be devoted to Keytar Bear’s existence, but suffice it to say that he has left an indelible mark as a musician and Boston icon.
Clearly, Boston’s fantastic music scene extends even into the unglamorous caverns of public transit. There, artists—many whose caliber of artistry matches that of professionals—humbly perform their music, asking only for what passersby can spare. Their jobs are thankless, but their passion is unshakeable, and whether consciously acknowledged or not, their music reminds the hustling crowd that everyday life can be sweetened.