The TTC Supporting Busking Musicians Means Everyone Wins


This story is over 5 years old.


The TTC Supporting Busking Musicians Means Everyone Wins

The sounds literally from Toronto's underground are helping musicians and commuters.

Photo by Jake Kivanc In Toronto, everyone has something to say about the Toronto Transit Commission. Most people fucking hate the TTC. There are too many people and those people on the bus or streetcar or subway car suck; the trains break down or are delayed too often; the 29 Dufferin bus is a carriage ride in hell. But, bottom line, it serves the public. It moves a vast population from the very west part of the city in Etobicoke all the way to the east in Scarborough and everything in-between. If one could define Toronto commuters as anything it's that they are busy. Endlessly busy and decidedly important. Yet, one of the ways the TTC has sought to alleviate the gruesome commute for its customers is to incorporate live music into the subway stations across the city.


The TTC Subway Musicians Program tagline is "discover the TTC's underground musicians" and it is quite literally that. For over 35 years the Musicians Programs has featured hard working, though largely unknown, musicians at 25 stations throughout Toronto. Prior to 1979, according to Jane Garofaolo, a special events and programming specialist with the TTC's program, a bylaw existed that prevented musicians from playing or busking in the stations. But during the 80s, a pilot program was launched that shaped the program as it is today. Every three years, the TTC holds auditions for musicians to be selected for a two year licensed, with musicians paying $197.75 to participate. The TTC doesn't compensate its musicians, Garofaolo tells me, but they do allow for musicians to busk—to have their guitar or mandolin or violin cases open for commuters to pay them for playing. Musicians come from all over the city with diverse backgrounds—including some Juno Award winners—audition for a chance to play for customers going through the hallways of Toronto's underground. The list of licensed musicians is diverse, says Garofaolo. "It's just a variety of instruments they bring in for customers. Of course, the majority we have are guitars but we have a balalaika, mandolins, Chinese flutes, pan flutes, and more. I think the music and the diversity of the instruments are tied into the city."

On one of the coldest day in Toronto, K Funk (Kristin Fung) and her partner in this duo Lady Ree (Sheree Spencer) wore leis and so joyfully did a rendition of Frank Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." "This is one of the many things we do as performing artists and it really fills us. It makes us so happy," Fung tells me. The duo auditioned and received their license in 2015, also placing 12th in the rankings. The TTC ranks performers from one to 75 (though there is always an honorary spot for the program's first performer Billy James) and has a rotation that goes up to 100; allowing room for performers who may decide to not stay with the program and bumping someone up. Although for some TTC musicians, busking may form the foundation of their income, a common thread amongst them is that they work on multiple musical or creative or personal projects. "I have my own, which I perform under my own name, which is an R&B and soul original project. I have an EP I released on iTunes called Massive Stride—those are original R&B, soul songs," Fung tells me. She is also a music director at the Second City Theatre; conducts private music tutorials; she has an experimental vocal collective with eight other women called New Lineage. Her ukulele partner Sheree Spencer also has a diverse musical and performative background. "My family is from Barbados. So I think my dad was a huge influence when I started to learn music—he played guitar and bass growing up," says Spencer. "I [studied] at the Royal Conservatory of Music, continued choirs and many different ensembles in high school, elementary school as well. I work as a freelance musician and I perform violin with the Ontario Pops orchestra." Spencer also runs a Socacize dance class and will be appearing on the debut season of FX's American Gods. K Funk and Lady Ree also teach ukulele both locally and internationally: they just attended a workshop in Bermuda and will be conducting a session at this weekend's farewell to the iconic Honest Ed's store in the Annex. They enjoy specifically playing in the subway Fung says because "it forces you as a musician to focus in and channel on what you're doing. Which I think allows beauty to really resonate in places that I don't think you would normally find. And, for us, for our own craft, there are ways it brings growth to us. Not many people cover soul and R&B songs on the ukulele like we do."


Another musician licensed by the TTC on and off since 2008 is Mama D—a soul singer who plays acoustic guitar. Mama D (Diem Lafortune) shifted her focus from practicing law to musical and social justice pursuits, often finding that the two are so tightly woven together for her. LaFortune has won songwriting awards and was also nominated in 2013 for the Canadian Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year Award at the Canadian Folk Awards. Lafortune empathetically performs original works that tie into contemporary issues of the day.  Lafortune, an Indigenous woman in her 60s, tackles Indigenous and political issues within her original works but also strives to make a connection between herself and commuters. "I have people who stand on the other side and they will stay for two or three songs. And they will have a cry. They will stand there for 10 or 15 minutes and have a good weep. Then they will come over and thank me. Sometimes they will give me a $20 and sometimes it'll be a loonie," she says.

Depending on location, some performers can see a lot of money come their way and other times not much at all. The musicians I spoke to were vocal about framing the money they receive while busking as a gift versus a more purely capitalist exchange. Lafortune praises the TTC though for giving musicians a chance to actually make money for their work when there are bars and other venues more willingly, she says she has experienced, to not pay someone at all. The TTC instead elevates musicians; giving them a chance to earn some money and have access to, arguably, one of the largest audiences any performer could have. The TTC recently piloted a spotlight for its performers that give them a stage to be on, adding both legitimacy (as though that was something commuters need of their musicians) and focus on the fact that they are part of something connected to the TTC. Busking can be a vital beginner space for new musicians testing out how to perform or gauge their stage presence.


The experiences of each artist by-and-large were glowing. Adam Solomon, a Juno Award winning guitarist who has been in the program since 1994 and plays African Blues composition, echoed that similar sentiment in a comment via email, telling me that his experiences have mainly been very positive and for the most part fun. Lafortune had a mixed response about some of the experiences she has had during her time as a TTC musician. On one hand, she says commuters come back and say thank you but on the other, some people have been unpredictable. "Being emotional to people; that's what artists do. We take the energy and emotions; people vicariously see these emotions," she says. "We don't know if someone is going to come around and smash us in the face or not," she says. "I had a guy at Bloor [station] and he sat down beside me and took a…he took a great big crap and he left it beside me. And it stunk up the whole place. He defecated."

Nevertheless, TTC Music Program is mutually beneficial to the musicians who perform and the commuters who are the recipients of them. Whether they realize it or not, they are privy to art living and breathing right in front of them that is being tinkered with in real time; testing out new or old material and working out creative kinks. It's a live performance, just for them. K Funk and Lady Ree have said they got gigs from playing in the subway, like performing for the mayor after someone at Toronto Affordable Housing approached them, asking if they wanted to be part of some of his staff events. Around four million people go through Toronto's subway system each day. That's an incredible amount of people streaming in out and trains and walking past performers playing original work or covers accordions, guitars, ukuleles, to name a few instruments. Musicians get a chance to interact with music consumers on a far more one-on-one interaction through a conversation or even just a smile, which some of the performers say they value over money.

"Our music makes this city of Toronto shine," says Solomon. "And without it, it will be boring dead! Without music, It will be like a prison!

Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.