The Sound of the Underground

Zahra sat outside on the concrete steps smoking in deep drags from a pack of Camels after an impromptu audition. She flung back her dark, curly hair from her face and pushed her glasses into place.

“So what do you want to know?” she asked, her voice husky from years of smoking, giving her a sultry Amy Winehouse sound when she sings the blues.

She wasn’t someone the judges of the RATP Espace Métro Accords described as a particularly friendly personality after her audition for a permit to play in the Paris metro. But they agreed she had motivation.

“Paris isn’t easy for someone from the south,” said the Provence native. For Zahra, Paris was a place to come to create a network and experiment with her sound, but she knew she wouldn’t make it big right away. 

Like many of the musicians who get their start in the Paris metro, she has only considered herself a professional for the last few months. Before that she was a therapeutic masseuse and held other odd jobs.  Then one day, something came along. 

“I could either take the risk to live my dreams or regret having never even tried,” she said.

For Zahra, the metro is a good start. It’s not the ideal gig, but it offers two things that aren’t easy to come by in this music city – money and exposure.

Paris is where young people come to jam with other artistes, playing French music; swing jazz and rock, to try not lose their minds, she described. Jam sessions like the one held near the Bastille neighborhood are how she found a network of musicians in Paris.

“Once you’re at a certain level, you just head down and everyone starts throwing bits together until you get something good,” she said. 

Zahra currently plays in three duo groups, two with guitar and one with a piano—all blues.

“I was always interested in the blues,” she said. “Blues is simple language. If you’re feeling bad, you say you’re feeling bad. It’s direct and corresponds to my personality.”

* * *

It’s been a long afternoon for the six judges sitting in the Espace Metro Accords’ private building the Paris metro company uses to select which talents will be given a permit to play in the public space over the next six months. It’s the second week of the month-long audition process and the judging panel is brand new. Today, three of them are technicians from line seven and two are from the communications department of RATP. While they don’t have any background in music, they use their personal tastes to represent the diversity of the metro public. The last judge is Antoine Naso, artistic director of the project since its creation in 1977.

“The second group was good, but I’m not sure I would stop and listen to them in a metro setting,” said one of the judges. Today the jury heard from 11 groups ranging in style from folky Balkans music, to blues, to French pop. Over the course of the next month a rotating jury panel will hear from nearly 1,000 applicants, but only 300 will receive badges. 

Not just anyone can wheel a speaker and a guitar down the steps and play in the underground tunnels, but most people don’t know that.

“We have nothing to do with the people that play illegally on the trains,” said Naso. “We created this organization as an opportunity house for young artistes to gain exposure playing in front of a public audience.”

On some metro lines, such as line 10, small plaques read, “Musicians playing on cars are not associated with or authorized by the RATP Musiciens du Métro. Do not encourage their illegal playing by giving them money.”

However, as anyone who takes the metro on a regular basis can attest, in any given day passengers will encounter a variety of singers, guitarists or accordion players travelling car-to-car, passing out a beaten-up paper cup for spare change.

“They are a nuisance to the people on the metro,” said an RATP security official. “You have to think of the people who are tired, have different tastes in music and need to get on and off the train.”

Those caught playing on the métro are fined 90 euros at each offense, however, their swift getaway between connecting lines, makes it difficult for security to enforce.

“It’s forbidden but people still do it. We see them running from car-to-car as not to get caught, but we have to control this problem,” said the security official.

But for the musicians who do have the right to play, its not often they cross paths with those who don’t’ have the right. Once artistes receive their badges, they are free to explore the 300 stations that make up the underground labyrinth.

From Châtelet to Bastille to Republique, there are many big metro stations that attract musicians because of the large and diverse audience they bring.

While many métro stations may seem alike, Livane Revel, guitarist and singer, said there are subtle differences that help a musician find which station is right for them.

“It’s not that some metros are better than others,” she said. “Everyone finds their groove in a different place. Where I play, I have the impression people pass from all social classes and backgrounds, which helps get my music out to as many different people as possible.”

Revel said she tried about six or seven different metros across Paris before she settled into her spot. Now one year since she began playing in the metro, she has formed a small network of people she crosses paths with regularly. While normally people don’t give money or stop to grab a flyer the first time, her positioning in the same spot at roughly the same time has proven to turn passengers into fans.

“It’s not easy to fill a Paris concert hall,” she said. “Playing in the metro, it gives people multiple opportunities to listen to my music before they go to an actual concert.”

The main goal of the Espace Metro Accord program, said Naso, is to professionalize the relationship between the artists seeking exposure and the five million people passing through the metro stations each day. In addition, the program acts as a trampoline into partnered festivals such as Solidays, Rock en Seine and Art Rock. This opportunity allows three young talents a space at the festival.

“We act as an agent of the artists to boost their opportunity at big venues,” said Naso. “At the same time, these musicians participate in our project to animate the RATP network.”

While the organization helps the musicians in many ways, its partnership also helps to brighten the dull, grimy halls as people make their way around below the city.

Marie Gauteur, a young Parisian, usually walks through the metro with ear buds to drown out the bustling crowd and pass the time. But she would much rather listen to live music.

“Music in the metro is really a beautiful way to lighten up the surroundings and pass the time. When you’re walking and have nothing to do, it’s a really nice,” said Gauteur. 

The “underground world” has been a source of inspiration for songs produced by many famous French singers such as Serge Gainsbourg and Pierre Perret. It has also boosted the careers of notable artists such as Keziah Jones and Ben Harper during their early stages in music.

* * * 

Like many musicians at the start of their career, it’s a bumpy road. Neighbors scream when they rehearse too loudly, gigs are hard to come by and finding someone that’s willing to sign a deal isn’t easy.

For the rest of the month at least, Zahra knows she’s got a few gigs lined up at different bars in Paris to put food on the table, but she’s not sure after that. At least she hopes she’ll have the metro to collect some spare change and promote a few gigs here and there. But nothing is certain.

“I’ve learned enough to know it’s better to live in the moment,” she said. 

The Underground Artist

A voice echoes through the corridor of the dirty Paris métro station. It stretches down the stairwell and falls into the pool of bustling passengers, blending with the sounds of clapping heels running to make the train just before the doors buzz shut and it rumbles by. There are homeless women begging for food for their children, men in suits passing in a hurry and dozens of headphone-covered ears bobbing their way to the platform.

Amidst all of this stands Livane Revel.

Her guitar is swung over her shoulder and her red lips nearly touch the microphone as she starts to sing. Her words shape into a smile as people pass, but she doesn’t always receive one back.  She stands on a red, floral blanket with her speaker, a few CDs, her permit and a basket of tips set to the side.

Every few minutes the train roars past to rotate her audience, but she doesn’t flinch anymore. For Revel, this corner has become a public rehearsal studio she has claimed at least two mornings each week for the last year.

As an artist just starting out, this dirty corner is the only place she is guaranteed high foot traffic and a diverse audience. Every six months Revel passes an audition with the RATP Musiciens du Métro association to renew her permit. While roughly 1,000 musicians apply, Revel is one of only 300 to earn a badge allowing her to play in the public space.

As the rush blurs by, a few people stop to say hello or give a compliment.

The clock reads four minutes – the wait for the next train to arrive. As people wait, some take out their headphones to listen, watch, or sometimes drop a coin into her basket. 

The money isn’t consistent, but she’ll usually collect enough to buy groceries or some materials she needs for her guitar. “It’s certainly not enough to live on,” she said. But what she doesn’t make in tips she is compensated for with gigs and artistic connections that may help down the road. By playing in the métro she has promoted small-venue concerts in bars and a recent music video she produced through the help of crowd funding.

A few strangers scratch their email addresses onto a piece of printer paper to subscribe to her event email list; others sing along to the words of an old French classic. Her style is classic and sweet French pop. Over the course of two to three hours, she sings a mix of covers of songs by Barbara and Yves Jamait, as well as her own compositions.

“A girl with an electric guitar like that – that’s sexy,” said Valerie Essel who sang along while waiting for the train to arrive. “I usually have my Walkman on but when I hear music like that, I just have to stop and listen.”

Before a year and a half ago, the thought of singing and playing the guitar alone frightened Revel nearly to death. It wasn’t that she wasn’t used to being in the spotlight, having predominantly worked as a comedian in her adult career. But this was different.

“The first time I played in the métro I had very bad stage fright,” she said. “I kept asking myself ‘what am I doing?’ It was all so strange to me. But after a few songs, I quickly realized a few people were interested by my playing, and that surprised me in a good way.”

Today Revel is not only used to the feeling of playing in front of hundreds of passing strangers on their way to work, but she feeds off the feeling to boost her confidence to carry on.  

“When I leave after playing for two hours in the métro, I’m just bursting with energy and confidence to continue my project, even if it is just myself and my guitar,” she said with a smile spread across her face. 

Revel first experimented with a voice career in 2006 when she began a band with a few friends.

“It was a really cool experience, but I didn’t know how I was going to live off of the project,” she said. “Finally I decided it was costing me more than it was bringing in and I had to end it.

Revel realized soon after that singing was something she had to do, whether it was with a group or alone. For the next two years Revel studied the guitar intensively to bring her abilities up to the level at which she could compose and sing. But she had no connections and nowhere to play.

That’s when she started in the métro.

Now a year later, she celebrates the small success playing in the métro has brought her. People won’t stop every time to listen or give her a tip, but after months in the same place, she has garnered a small fan base. It’s this consistency that has helped her build a network of artistes as well. By playing in the métro Revel met a photographer who offered free photos that would normally have cost a few hundred euros. A film director she crossed paths with recently produced her first music video to her song, “J’aime Cuissiner.”

Whether it’s the homeless man who gives her his last coin after spending the day listening to her pretty voice, or the woman who purchases a private concert, one way or another the métro makes it possible for her to keep playing.

“I’m not employed by anyone,” she said. “I do things because I want to do them, because they are a personal passion. But when I can no longer do it, I’m not sure what will happen.”

Revel has only ever known the precarious career of jumping from one job to the next, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This life… it’s not easy,” she said. “But I don’t know what else I would do. It’s always a little uncomfortable, but the liberty that it brings is worth it—even if it takes the wheel sometimes.”


Velib in Paris? Yes, but...

We all see those people. The woman in the 3-inch hot pink heels, the man in the slick gray suit, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone as they weave their bikes between sardined taxis. Sorry to break it to you, but you're not that cool yet. Here are some tips for beginner bikers in Paris:

Rules of the road: a compilation of my past mistakes

1. Do not challenge the light
Parisians care more about getting blood on their car than your safety. Living on the brink of Neuilly, one of the more 'chi' suburbs of Paris, I see people brushing their Mercedes-Benz's on a daily basis. With this in mind, Parisian drivers will dodge you, but they will definitely not slow down. Last time I chanced it, I was nearly hit by a taxi who didn't even think about slowing down, causing me to almost run over two little old ladies shouting, "doucement fille!"

2. Avoid bus-only lanes
No really, a bus will hit you if you ride in these lanes. While many bus lanes are shared with bikes, there are also many designed with only enough space for a bus. The other day I made this grave mistake and had only a split second to hug my heavy ass Velib to the sidewalk rail and pray the bus driver saw me. Believe me, those things are not light, and those buses are not small. 

3. No time for a map - plan ahead
If you're like me, you might think 'Oh hey, there are tons of huge landmarks in Paris. I don't need a map.' Where that plan led me the first time was through the Jardin des Tulleries, where I got shouted at by an angry, yellow vest, then on the Place de la Concorde, where it took me 10 minutes to gain enough courage to book it half way, then to the other side between surges of traffic and then to the Champs Elysees roundabout, where I lost all hope and suffered the shame of irritated looks, as people tripped over my bike on the crowded, touristy sidewalk. 

4. Roudabout confidence
If you're a little smarter than me you might take a glance at the most efficient route according to Google maps, noting road names in your head and thinking you'll check it along the way. Think again. Once you've made it into an intersection, there is no hope for digging out your phone. You better memorize that road name or you'll end up rounding your way a few times before you get off to check your phone and walk your bike thrice more before realizing that dear Google forgot to tell you the road name changes on the other side.

5. Don't be afraid to pull over and snap a shot
People will instantly know you're a tourist, but hey, a shot of the sun going down behind the Eiffel Tower on a perfect evening is something everyone should take the time to appreciate. A lot of Parisians take the beauty around them for granted because it's "touristy." Well really, it's their loss if they can't enjoy one of the most architecturally beautiful cities and capture it on their Desktop. And that's why, even though i still get nearly run off the road by buses and bitched out by old ladies, i still prefer a pretty Parisian view to a dark, dirty tunnel.