Economic and Cultural Opportunity Lures Street Musicians From Argentina’s Interior and Abroad to Buenos Aires

The city of Buenos Aires is a magnet for talented street musicians from around the world thanks to a supportive public, a decline in venues and a boom in tourism.

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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – An energetic melody surges from a saxophone and bounces off the walls and tunnels of an underground subway station in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.

On the platform, Víctor Ávila, the man responsible for the sound, sways to its rhythm. His eyes are closed in concentration. A few meters from his feet, his sax case sits open so passersby who enjoy the music can reward him with a few coins.

When the platform empties and the train abandons the station, Ávila leans against the wall and rests until the next train brings him a new audience.

“What is good about Buenos Aires is that all of the nights have activity, there is music every night, there are shows,” he says. “And we musicians have the option of ­– if we wake up one day without money – going out to play in the street or, in my case, the subway and making money for the day.”

People appreciate music in Buenos Aires, in sharp contrast to other cities throughout the country, like in Córdoba, the province in central Argentina where Ávila is from, he says. Street musicians in the nation’s capital install themselves in subway stations and the crowded pedestrian streets, squares and plazas of touristy areas such as the neighborhood of San Telmo and can earn money for their performances.

“That did not exist in Córdoba,” Ávila says. “There, I have played on the street, including on the pedestrian street, but the people there do not have the culture of here, the people here.”

Musicians say Buenos Aires has emerged as a mecca for street performances thanks to a supportive public that enables them to showcase their art as well as to earn a living from it.

Local musicians trace the phenomenon to the scarcity of formal venues after a 2004 tragedy at a nightclub led to increased government restrictions. A parallel rise in tourism in recent years has also expanded audiences for these performances in the city’s vibrant streets.

As the streets have become a ripe stage, musicians from other provinces, countries and continents have flocked to Buenos Aires. Here, they say people appreciate street music more and even pay them for their tunes.

María Claudia Lamacchia, author of a book on Argentina’s independent music scene, says many independent musicians – that is, those who are not employed by an orchestra or similar entity – struggle to find venues in which to play. For them, playing live in bars or in the streets is an indispensable source of income.

While Lamacchia researched her book in 2008 and 2009, she interviewed 300 musicians in Buenos Aires. Just more than half of the musicians cited the scarcity of formal venues – such as theaters and venues – in which to play and the difficulty of making themselves known to the public – by recording professionally, for example – as major obstacles to their professional development. Half the musicians said live concerts, including those in the street, constituted their principal income source.

Saxophonist Alejandro Cabrera Britos attributes the scarcity of formal venues in Buenos Aires to an historic tragedy that struck the city in 2004, when a nightclub fire killed nearly 200 people who were attending a rock concert by an Argentine band. The incident had a major impact on various aspects of public life, including music. As the city government enforced tighter regulations, venues closed or had to raise their booking fees.

While this forced talented musicians to relocate their performances to the street, a boom in tourism in recent years has expanded their audiences, Cabrera Britos says.

The number of international tourists who visited Buenos Aires increased by 62 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to the city government.

Ávila, who is in his 40s, began studying music at age 8. He lived most of his life in Córdoba, but he struggled to support himself there. Determined to make a living from music, he moved to Buenos Aires in January 2013.

“In Córdoba, if you do not find a job in a municipal orchestra, do not try to live off music because it is impossible,” he says.

Street music does not exist in Córdoba, and there are far fewer places such as bars and theaters where independent musicians can play, Ávila says.

“The street artist is poorly seen in Córdoba,” he says. “They take him as a beggar.”

On train platforms and in subway cars in Buenos Aires, on the other hand, Ávila plays famous melodies from a range of genres. He also plays in a big band, two salsa bands and a wind ensemble in jazz clubs, bars and private parties.

Still, he earns most of his living playing in the subway for passengers, he says.

“If they like how you play, they leave you a coin,” he says.

Playing there also helps him to get other gigs, he says. Passengers have hired him to play at parties or to give them saxophone lessons.

Agustín Martínez, a regular subway rider, says that he enjoys hearing live music on the platforms and in the streets.

“I love when a musician gets on the car in which I am riding or plays near the restaurant in which I am eating,” he says. “They are things that even may brighten my day.”

Cabrera Britos does not live off the money he earns from weekend street performances in San Telmo with a reggae band called Jamaicaderos, he says. But he prefers the street to any other stage. He believes his work serves a social good.

“When someone tells us that we changed their day, or when people who do not know each other dance and share a moment, or when a homeless person has a good time, it is more gratifying than if they buy a CD from us,” says Cabrera Britos, whose band hawks its self-made CD during its San Telmo performances. “That is the magic of the street.”

Cabrera Britos credits a lot of that magic to Buenos Aires’ culture and the support of street music by locals and the rising number of tourists.

“A very visible and important characteristic of Buenos Aires is the idiosyncrasy of the people – of both locals and tourists,” he says. “The sympathy from the public for the street musician is big. There is a very important emotional support toward the street musician. The people approach us and thank us. They tell us they enjoy seeing artists in the street.”

The restrictions on formal venues following the nightclub tragedy pushed many musicians to perform in the street, so the ones who play are talented, Cabrera Britos says.

“The musicians who are in the street are not artistic surplus,” he says. “The street is a captivating stage that seduces all the time. Everything is very spontaneous, and it is that improvisation and constant change that makes it be a one-of-a-kind place to play.”

The flourishing culture of street music in the city has seduced foreign musicians from around the world, he says.

“There are musicians from all over the world,” Cabrera Britos says. “I know Africans, Brazilians, Russians, Americans, Germans, Belgians, Portuguese, Colombians, Peruvians, Chileans, Bolivians, Chinese. The migration is global.”

Most are from the European Union and Latin America, he says. Many come to earn a living. For others though, such as Europeans, playing in the streets is not due to an economic need, but rather a desire to play or to complement other activities, such as studying.

The number of foreign musicians has increased exponentially during the past three years, Cabrera Britos says.

“We have a plurality of impressive musicians, both from the interior and from Latin America and from different parts of the world,” he says. “There is a mixture that really enriches the musical landscape that the city can offer.”

Reginaldo Ramos is a Brazilian singer and guitarist who sings romantic songs in Portuguese at the foot of a monument on a pedestrian street in the city center. He has traveled throughout Latin America playing on the streets and says the people of Buenos Aires appreciate street musicians more than people in other countries.

“Every day, people come to talk with me to tell me that they like what I play or to buy a CD from me,” he says.

Ramos prefers to play in the streets more than in any other venue, he says. He is so used to playing music between the passersby that he would feel strange singing on a stage or in a bar.

In order to play in a public thoroughfare or the subway, though, a musician must maintain a respectful relationship with police and security guards, Ávila says.

“I am always very respectful with the subway workers, the police, and the other musicians who play on the platforms,” he says. “I greet everyone and try not to bother anybody. One tries to coexist as best as possible. In one way or another, we are all earning our bread here.”

When Ramos plays, he always tries not to bother pedestrians or shopkeepers, he says.

“As I know that at times I can come to hinder the walkway and that annoys business owners in all cities,” he says, “I choose places without stores, such as monuments or plazas, to avoid problems. The police only throw you out when someone complains.”

Martínez says it becomes annoying when musicians play too loudly on subway platforms and in the streets.

“When the music is very loud and does not allow me, for example, to converse with the person whom I have beside me, then it no longer seems pleasurable to me to listen to it,” he says.

Diego Boris, the former president of the Federación Argentina de Músicos Independientes, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of independent musicians, says street music is positive because it brings art within reach of everyone. But it should also be rooted in consensus between musicians and the public.

“It has to start from mutual respect in order to ensure that the music can be naturally incorporated into the space without anyone ending up wronged,” says Boris, now the director of the National Institute of Music, a governmental body that promotes music.

In the future, Boris hopes people in other places will embrace street music as residents and visitors of Buenos Aires do, he says. He considers it a shame that musicians have to leave their places of origin to make themselves known or to earn a living from their art.

He dreams of a day when regional music hubs will exist across the country and provide musicians with formal spaces to play in, such as recording studios, theaters and outdoor concert venues, he says.

“The province of Buenos Aires is an enormous province, but it does not have the window that the capital has,” he says as an example. “The objective also is to try to reverse this and that the musicians do not have the need to travel to Buenos Aires in order to be able to work.”

GPJ translated this article from Spanish.