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.”

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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.