Busking in New York’s Urine-Scented Underground

We asked director and producer Ramon Nyitrai why he made a movie about the nuts who play in New York's smelly subway system and why the cops can't stand it when music goes underground.

Alex Ellefson

The life of New York City street performers is mysterious. It seems that they run the gamut from pregnant crusties who blow "Hot Cross Buns" into a recorder to soulful crooners who used to sing backup for Luther Vandross and can hit dog-whistle notes. If you've ever wondered who these people are and why they'd chose to spend all their time in a place that smells like urine and vomit, watch Busk. It's a short documentary directed and produced by Ramon Nyitrai, a former VICE intern who's gone on to make to make good for himself. I talked with Ramon briefly about why he chose to make a movie about the nuts who play in the subway and what it's like to get harassed by cops for strumming on the ole banjo.

VICE: What inspired you to choose buskers as a subject for a documentary?
Ramon: One of the paradoxes that I noticed with these musicians is they come in and out of our daily lives and we come in and out of their daily lives. It stops some of us in our tracks and makes us feel a certain way when we hear this music. Yet people know so little about them. These are essentially the people that are changing our lives in minute ways every time we enter or exit the subway.

Was this documentary a commentary on how subway musicians are treated by authorities?
Absolutely. Busking was once illegal in New York City. It was considered to be a craft of beggars, degenerates, and undesirables. So that's a really interesting history in New York City because a lot of people associate New York with culture and society and music, but it has this tainted and dark past in regard to music. It wasn't until 1985 that musical performances were permitted in the subway systems of New York.

Why? What happened in 1985?
There was a guitarist named Roger Manning. He received a summons on a platform in the subway for entertaining passengers. And then he challenged the summons in a Manhattan criminal court in 1985, and the case became known as People v. Manning. It was in this case that the court decided that the total ban on subway music was unconstitutional and it violated the Fourteenth and First amendments of the US Constitution. And it was in 1985 that the MTA established MUNY, Music Under New York, to promote the proliferation of live-performance music below New York.

A lot of the musicians in your film criticize MUNY. How is that organization flawed?
What a lot of people don't understand is that the methods of operation of MUNY are inequitable. They're not fair. They are diverse to an extent by allowing random, bizarre performers to receive lifetime permits. They hold annual auditions for musicians to come out, and if they're selected, they're granted a lifetime MUNY permit. But these permits give exclusive rights to specific spots in the subway system, taking the spot and location away from other performers who don't have that, who might be much better musicians than these particular performers. So it's a little discriminating towards other musicians.

How did some of your ideas about the film change after you started shooting?
We originally went out with the expectation that we were going to shoot this short or possibly feature-length documentary about these two artists. We were going to follow them throughout their lives—how they interact with different subway musicians, how they go about their day, the gigs they have lined up in the evening. When I started developing the structure of the story, we all started to discover that these two characters in the film weren't necessarily the right characters.

Why did you have to cut those two characters?
When some people are on camera, they take on a persona that's not really them. They start acting for the camera, and it's just not genuine. There's no sincerity in it, and it kind of killed the mood.

What were some of the other difficulties you encountered while producing the film?
I think this is actually the first short documentary about busking that actually has acquired music-synchronization licenses from big music companies. I have one from EMI and two from Sony. I bumped into a lot of people that told me that I wouldn't be able to do this film because of those music licenses, and I proved them wrong.

Is Busk also highlighting the theme of the rebellious artist?
Of course, but you have to note that what they're doing isn't unconstitutional. They're legally allowed to play in those areas. It's just that these authorities—subway workers, platform attendants, police officers—they believe to some extent that musicians without permits are playing illegally. They're just not well versed in the laws of the subway system. So they hand out tickets, summonses, citations, or they'll arrest the musician on the spot and take them away and lock them up for whatever amount of time, just for playing music.

Why is it so important to encourage buskers to bring art into public spaces?
What's interesting is that in the trailer and in the film, there's a point where Morgan O'Kane's talking about MUNY and the craft and the medium of music, and he's saying that these guys are trying to control music and it's something that's uncontrollable. That sums up a lot of the movie. It's this universal medium that crosses these different barriers. It always seems to shine through in the most repressive situations.

Alex Ellefson is an intern at VICE