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Feature Thu Jan 21 2010
Where there are people, there is music. It makes us feel the things we need to when we don't already. It enhances them when we do. It carries us backward and pushes us forward. It can be found in every known culture and has been performed in public since the time of antiquity. It should come as no surprise to find it being performed just a few steps beneath the ground. After all, there are fantastic acoustics and 24-hour audiences to be found in the tunnels below.
The tunnel musicians of Chicago can be heard amid the roar of trains. Depending who you ask, there are only four performance-permitted stops: Jackson and Lake on the Red Line, and Jackson and Washington on the Blue. Some will tell you about these four. Some will tell you there are only three. I'll tell you what time already has: where there are people, there is music.
I recently spent three nights walking through the tunnels for a closer listen. These are the sounds, and the people I heard.
I was walking through the Red Line tunnel at Grand when I met Lonnie. Lonnie plays the soprano sax. He stands tall and slender and speaks in a mellow tone, with both his voice and his sax. When he gets the urge, Lonnie performs in Chicago's tunnels.
We begin to talk. I ask if this is something he does for enjoyment and he replies simply, "It's got to be." He says it's his way of finding himself and giving himself back.
When I ask if he's from Chicago he stops for a moment to think. "In a way," he eventually answers. He goes on to explain that he comes from a large and musical family, split mostly between Chicago and New York. He's from both. When he's on Eastern Time, Lonnie can be found performing in the New York City Subway.
It's not the money that brings him down here. He tells me he's already rich; that being rich is a state of mind; a choice. He says his ability to play music makes him rich. If it wasn't that it would be something else. But it is that, and he shares it. It's the part of himself that he gives back. It's a musical reminder that our problems don't define us. They don't dictate our state of mind. Or at least they don't have to. It's a choice.
He breaks away from our conversation several times to play for the people he sees. At one point, he stops talking mid-sentence to play a love song for a young couple he spots in the distance. The conversation resumes. The playing resumes. And so it goes until the conversation reaches its end; and there's only the playing left.
Before I step back on the train, Lonnie tells me he sees a lot of dead people walking through the tunnels. I ask him if he has anything he'd like to say to them. "Feel alive," he says. The playing resumes. The train doors close.
I walked off the train and onto the Lake Red Line platform. This is where I met Martial. Martial sings and plays guitar. He plays many instruments actually. But on this day he plays an acoustic guitar. As I walk closer I hear him singing in Spanish. As time passes I hear him singing in English. He does both beautifully.
Martial is originally from Cuba. Near Havana. He's lived all over the U.S. for about 20 years. Most of his family lives in Chicago. It's the place he keeps coming back to. He tells me that, in Cuba, street performing is one of the only real ways to earn your own money. That is to say, private money. Some Cubans make their living this way. For Martial, it's a way to do something he loves when money is short and rent is due.
I ask him how he got started playing music, and what it meant to him at the time. He tells me it came naturally, that his father and much of his family were musicians. Artists. He shares with me something his grandfather shared with him — "Whatever you can find to do with your hands will keep you from starving to death...A man who cannot speak, if he can use his hands, can make something...You have a lot of gifts, so use them all."
Martial began playing seriously when he was 15. But his love for the guitar began even earlier. As a child, everyone in his family had to play an instrument. They didn't own many and had to choose each day from the ones they did. Martial always chose the guitar. He would sometimes sleep with it at night to make sure he didn't lose it in the morning.
I ask him why he continues to play music, and what it means to him now. He tells me it's no longer a matter of catharsis. It goes beyond that. "It's just like conversation with a good friend," he says. "You don't call your friend up because you need therapy, you call your friend up because you like your friend."
Martial is sharp. We talk about how things are and how they could be better. He tells me we need a new idea. He says we need an inventor. He says all great inventions come from the need to alleviate a burden. There have been so many burdens, so many inventions. We just need a new one.
He brings it home with the James Brown lyric — "Man made electric light, to take us out of the dark." I resurface for the night as Martial sings another song.
It was a Friday night. Elvis' birthday. I'd been moving through the Blue Line tunnel for hours when I paused at the Monroe stop. It's where I met Joseph. Joseph plays guitar and sings. His voice and his guitar are identical: weathered on the surface but soulful and sonorous everywhere else. There's a small audience in the tunnel. I watch as he appears to soothe many of them.
Joseph's lived in Chicago since 1992. He's been playing in the tunnels just as long. He performs on his own and with his group, Connection. I ask him if he plays any other instruments and he names a small band's worth.
He tells me music is like medicine to him. It has been since he was seven or eight. Maybe longer. When I ask what did it for him he fires back quickly, "Elvis Presley." I tell him it's Elvis' birthday and he instantly lights up. Just as quickly he begins playing "Hound Dog."
I ask him what else he knows. He says he knows a lot. I ask him if he knows any Sam Cooke. He does. He waits for the trains to pass then plays "A Change Is Gonna Come." With enough focus, one can tune out the drunken woman singing along, and hear a man singing with equal parts pain and hope. The pain alone is gargantuan.
Joseph came to Chicago from Miami, where he was a drug dealer. He tells me he's spent maybe ten years of his life in jail, including a single five-year sentence. He grew weary of that life and came here to start a new one. He says he's made some mistakes here as well, but that all ended with an awakening in Stateville. "I didn't get arrested," he tells me. "I got rescued."
He tells me how he walked down to the trains one day and saw a man performing. Something in him clicked. He knew it was what he wanted to do. He quit his job and has been performing in the tunnels ever since. He earns his living doing it. I ask him if there's a lesson he's learned, a lesson that others can learn from his experiences. He says softly and intensely, "Leave your mark." The conversation comes to an end.
The tunnel is now almost empty except for a few cops, and us. If you ask the cops, they will tell you Monroe is not a performance-permitted stop. Joseph and I board the same train. As my stop nears I ask him if he plans to call it a night. "Oh no," he says. "I'm going to Grand. Hopefully there's more people there."
Where there are people, there is music.
All photos by Brian Leli.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.