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Originally published Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 6:16 AM

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Paris musicians vie for subway gigs

With its 5 million passengers a day, 303 stations and miles upon miles of hallways, the subterranean theater that is the Métro has become “the biggest scene in Paris for musicians,” says the energetic man who auditions thousands of acts competing for just 300 permits.

The New York Times

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PARIS — On a rain-soaked afternoon in Paris’ edgy 11th Arrondissement, Antoine Naso squeezed down a winding staircase in his tiny office and walked toward a coterie of young men waiting to audition in an airless basement.

Naso has a somewhat unusual job: He is an artistic director for the Paris Métro. But it is one that he takes just as seriously as his counterparts at the opera.

“Why are you here?” he asked, as they stood at attention under a glare of spotlights.

Thibault Couillard, a poet and musician, blinked nervously and cleared his throat. “We’d like to get this gig,” he replied, reaching for a microphone while his confreres unzipped damp bags and pulled out two guitars, a jury-rigged pedal drum and a melodica. “If we could play before huge crowds, that would be magical.”

It was nearly the 200th performance that Naso had heard in 10 days. But by the time Couillard’s band, the Danny Brixton Trio, finished a set of Serge Gainsbourg-style numbers, Naso was convinced. The group would get one of only 300 coveted permits that allow artists to perform almost anywhere they want, any time they want, in the subterranean theater that is the Métro.

With 5 million passengers a day, 303 stations and miles upon miles of hallways, “it’s become the biggest scene in Paris for musicians,” said Naso, an energetic man clad in black jeans and leather boots who established a program to ensure live, quality music throughout the Métro 16 years ago.

Parisians cling to a certain nostalgia for buskers, who have wielded accordions, trumpets, xylophones or just the power of their voice in the Métro’s vast acoustical labyrinth ever since it was christened in 1900.

About 2,000 people apply annually for tryouts held in spring and autumn, judged by Naso, two Métro employees and two members of the public. About half of the permits awarded go to veteran badge holders, with the rest going to newcomers.

“We have a high level of artists,” said Naso, who estimated that he had judged nearly 20,000 auditions since 1997, when the licensing program started. “Producers and recording houses are scouting the Métro more and more,” he said. “Sometimes, a star is born.”

He pointed to photos of artists who had made it by turning the Métro into their own public concert hall, including funk musician Keziah Jones; Lââm, a French-Tunisian hip-hop artist; and California-born soul and rock musician Ben Harper.

Two classes of performers prowl the Métro: the legal ones awarded permits, and unlicensed buskers, who tend to corner captive audiences in trains with screeching accordions — or more unorthodox entertainment.

One recent day at rush hour, a man who called himself the Romanian Michael Jackson broke into a robotic break dance, sequins flashing on his red jacket and tendrils of hair bouncing from a curly wig. As passengers recoiled, he pumped up his boombox, shouting “Hee!” to the strains of “Billie Jean.”

“I do it for money,” the man, who gave his name as Florian Jackson, said, adding that he earned about 1,500 euros a month, or about $2,020. For him, the work was fraught with stress.

“It’s hard to dance like Michael on a moving train; my back hurts!” he said. “Then the cops come and force me to leave. But I always come back.”

Naso said the authorities tried to prevent rogue acts, but sometimes, there was not enough personnel. “Not just anybody should be allowed to play,” he said. “You have to have talent.”

Those who win the legal right swarm to the most coveted spots, those at mammoth stations with ringing acoustics, including Châtelet — the world’s largest underground station — Concorde, Bastille, Trocadéro, République and Montparnasse.

At a teeming crossroads in the Châtelet station recently, Don Troop, a weathered Texan, jammed on his guitar, showering three immense corridors with a cascade of rock. A crowd massed as his calloused fingers, adorned with an ebony skull ring, flew over the strings. “I play for the people, man,” he said.

Compared to New York and California audiences, Parisians were discerning, he added. “They have a certain cultural taste that no one else has,” he said. “And if they don’t like you, you starve.”

Troop has operated in the Métro for years, but he still remembers his first audition with Naso. “I played ‘Hotel California.’ After 10 minutes, he said, ‘don’t you think that’s too long?’ The take-away is, if you’re going to audition, choose a short song.”

Back in the basement, Naso snapped a movie clapper board in front of a video recorder he uses to film tryouts as a three-man jazz band, the Abraham Cohen Trio, launched into the sultry strains of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” The bassist hit a false note and grimaced, but the band rebounded with a jaunty rendition of “Sunny,” hitting its groove as the jury members swayed and tapped their feet.

Cohen, an imposing man outfitted in a billowing black shirt, said the band was eager for a permit. “Of course we want it,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Music is our life.”

When the tryouts ended, the jurors compared scores. Most performers were strong, but Couillard’s group stood out with original, poetic material that told a story and captivated listeners. “They sang of jealousy, love and loss. Their playing was melodic,” Naso said.

“We had a ‘coup de coeur,’ ” Naso added — an instant love for the music. “And we’ll always go for those.”

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