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Subway Musicians

Daniel Huezo is just like hundreds of thousands of other commuters in Toronto: he leaves his home each day and takes the subway to go to work. What’s different about his commute is that he never leaves the subway.

Huezo is one of the carefully selected musicians who perform at 25 different subway stations on a daily basis. Each year in August, the Toronto Transit Commission auditions up to 200 hopefuls at the Canadian National Exhibition, judging them on their stage presence, musical talent and entertainment value. Only 75 are chosen and sold licences for $150 apiece.

The licence allows the performers to loiter legally within a designated area – usually a rectangle marked off by yellow dots – for as long as they like for one year. The musicians are given a rotating schedule that says who can perform where and when, but if a musician doesn’t show up for his shift, any of the others can take advantage of the empty space.

At Bloor-Yonge station, the busiest station with 184,000 passengers daily, according to the TTC’s 2005 operating statistics on its website, the area behind the set of stairs closest to the southbound platform is Huezo’s favorite spot. He’s here or on the northbound platform almost every day, sometimes seven days a week, performing he calls “South American folk music” that includes salsa, cha-cha-cha and Cuban-influenced music, among others.

Huezo arrived in Toronto in 1993, and his ties to El Salvador are still evident not only in his music, but also in the way he speaks: instead of answering “Yes,” he replies “Si.”

As he set up and tuned his guitar, he paused each time a train roared to a stop behind him because he couldn’t hear the notes as he plucked the strings, despite the fact that he was sitting only inches away from a battery-powered amp set at the maximum volume. “I could play for 10 years without changing the battery if the trains weren’t so loud,” said Huezo.

Battery-operated amplifiers are the only equipment the performers can use to make themselves heard: they’re not allowed to have any electronic equipment, such as microphones or pre-recorded background material. Huezo almost has to shout the Spanish lyrics to his songs to overpower the sound of metal-on-metal as the trains come to a halt.

To the left of Huezo is a small folding table displaying rows and rows of his CDs for sale, some solo and others with groups he has performed with in the past. Cards and coupons advertising upcoming performances are wedged between the CDs: he’s playing Brownstone Bistro’s “Live Jazz and Martinis” Thursdays – the coupon offers a free appetizer – and Burgundy’s “Latino Saturdays.”

“Performing is my full-time job,” said Huezo, it’s not something he does for fun or as a hobby. “The only difference between me and the guy who works in an office 9 to 5 is that I don’t leave work in a bad mood.”

It takes discipline for a musician to come to the subway every day and Huezo said he sees performing for subway passengers as a good opportunity to promote himself. Making his presence known on a daily basis is how he sells his music: “I’m not a subway musician, I’m a musician who plays for the people who ride the TTC.”

It’s like when you see something you like at a store one day in passing but you don’t have enough money for it, he said. As a customer, you might come back the next week when you do have the money, but if that store isn’t open, it isn’t going to get your business.

Huezo considers his set-up a business and the commuters who pass him each day potential customers: if he’s not there each day he’s losing the business of those customers who have come back with their money. “Famous musicians have to promote themselves to sell millions of CDs,” he said. “I don’t sell millions but I’m working on it.”

When he opened a rectangular briefcase with a black felt interior for passerby to toss change into, there were already a few nickels and dimes in it but he wouldn’t say how lucrative his full-time job is. As a rule, “I’m like any businessman: I don’t like to reveal exactly how much I make.”