Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York

By Susie J. Tanenbaum | Go to book overview
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Preface

One day in the fall of 1987, I was heading toward the exit of the Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights station in the borough of Queens when I was drawn from my course by the sounds and sight of the group Antara. This, I soon learned, was folkloric music of the South American Andes. The melody emanating from Jalil Kifafi's qena (wooden flute) had me convinced that colorful birds were circling the yellow bulbs dangling from the girdered ceiling. Leyder Dorado strummed his charango (similar to a mandolin, often made out of an armadillo shell), and his quick hand motion imitated the rush of a waterfall. Kifafi, Dorado, and guitarist Francisco Rodriguez wore wide-brimmed sombreros and woolen ponchos, and in the dim light behind them I imagined I could make out the contours of Andean mountains. I had already gotten off the train, but it was then that I was, indeed, transported.

That was my first encounter with some of the musicians who sing and play in exchange for donations on platforms and mezzanines, in passageways and train cars in the city's subway system. There, in one of the dingiest urban spaces, was a paradigm of beauty. It was the ultimate New York paradox.

Antara adopted the Roosevelt Avenue mezzanine, and in subsequent weeks I stopped not only to listen to the music but to exchange nods and, between sets, to chat with Jalil Kifafi (who, fortunately for me, was fluent in English). We became familiar faces to each other. Antara's members gave me what urban ecologists would call "a sense of

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