By Sonya Rehman
I’m snaking my way through clusters of people at Penn Station. After nine months of living in New York City I’ve become a real pro at it. In the beginning, I often found myself bumping, yelping and tripping over rushed, agitated folk with their briefcases and suitcases in tow.
A day before, Paul Mueller, a subway musician, told me to meet him at the A, C and E tracks. I’m hurriedly making my way towards them. I’m a few minutes over time.
Mueller has begun performing. I can hear the faint sound of his music from where I am. I guess I’ll have to wait till he’s done, I think to myself.
Mueller’s music gets louder; I’m within close proximity now. He’s playing ‘Rove’ from one of his previous albums. It’s an ethereal song – its beat raw and rustic – you could be standing in a deep, leafy forest or trekking in a valley thousands of miles away from home, searching for meaning in your life.
But you could also be on a set of an arty movie, directed by some guy from Brooklyn. This scene right now features Mueller, a middle-aged man in a faded purple t-shirt and jeans playing a traditional Iranian instrument – the santur in a non-traditional way.
Maybe the protagonist runs past Mueller just this minute – as Rove’s tempo hits a climax – and up the stairs and into the urban jungle outside. I shove the pseudo-romantic thought from my head and focus on a man in a suit standing a few inches from me. He’s enthralled by Mueller’s performance. Maybe he’s on his way home from work. He’s a chubby guy with curly hair. He walks past me, drops a dollar in Mueller’s unzipped, black bag and gives Mueller an embarrassed thumbs up. His face is a little flushed. He’s smiling, obviously moved by the music. He walks back to where he was standing initially, a few inches away from me, and takes a quick swig from his styrofoam cup.
Not everyone stops by to drop a dollar in Mueller’s bag. A majority of them walk by, hurriedly, in and out, out and in.
A few minutes pass and the space where Mueller sits and I stand is suddenly empty. Mueller ends his song, looks at me and smiles. I begin to walk over.
“You wanna sit down?” he asks, motioning to his little red stool. I tell him it’s alright and that I can stand. I’m embarrassed because I don’t know where he’s going to sit. But he doesn’t listen, politely places the stool in front of me, grabs his large speaker and sits on it. I sit down too.
Mueller and his brother, Marc, started their band, ‘Mecca Bodega’ fifteen years ago. The band’s genre of music falls into the category of World Music and World Folk Music.
“We needed a name for a song,” Mueller replies when I ask him what his band’s name means, “It was the name of one of our old songs that we’d made years ago…what it literally means is a pilgrimage to a deli.” He chuckles.
“It’s kinda like making a big deal out of an everyday thing.” Or like Mueller elaborates, like finding a spiritual meaning out of something really ordinary.
But speaking of spirituality, I tell Mueller that I find his music does carry a distinctive spiritual feel to it. There’s just something about the sound of it, you just feel it – it’s hard to define.
“Also because we don’t play the instruments in a traditional way,” Mueller tells me, “It’s not saying that traditions aren’t spiritual, but from our approach we just wanted to make music that makes people feel good basically. It wasn’t like a conscious thing, the instruments, most of them that we play, are organic instruments that are made out of animal skin and wood.”
Very shy and barely making eye contact, Mueller speaks as he carefully collects his stack of CD’s from the ground and places them into his bag, along with speaker wires, and his santur.
With seven albums under its belt, performances at Lollapollooza in 1992, Woodstock in 1994, the Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, and other festivals, the brothers behind Mecca Bodega initially set out by playing drum sets and featuring guest singers and songwriters in their albums. And this, they’ve continued to do till today – which makes their sound all the more rich, diversified and somewhat unpredictable.
“We wanted to bring drums and percussion to the forefront,” Mueller says. Growing up in Long Island, Mueller and his brother shifted to Brooklyn in the mid-nineties and began getting involved in different forms of percussion.
“That’s where it all started really,” he says, “And once we began playing all these different percussion instruments – the hammered dulcimer in particular – which is this stringed instrument, we found that there were a lot of musicians who just wanted to sit in with us.”
That’s when Mecca Bodega began playing sessions with a didgeridoo player from Australia, who was also a subway performer at the time, a guy called Singh who was a tabla player, and a master drummer from the Ivory Coast in West Africa.
“It was a really nice mix,” Mueller says.
Part of the MTA’s ‘Music Under New York (MUNY)’ program, Mecca Bodega joined MUNY as a result of the didgeridoo player.
“He was already involved in it,” Mueller says, “At the time we already had an independent label and were touring across the country.” The didgeridoo player had told the Mueller brothers that he was selling a lot of his CD’s at the city’s subway stations and encouraged them to start as well. “Apart from selling CD’s, it’s a great way to connect with people,” Mueller says. “You know you normally wouldn’t in a club situation or whatever.”
Auditioning for MUNY over ten years ago, Mecca Bodega began playing sessions at different subway stops. To get an audition with MUNY, musicians need to send sound clips to the program before a screening.
After the selection process, the musicians are auditioned. The MUNY auditions are held only once a year bringing together the MTA, people from the music industry, and established and amateur musicians within the city.
The music needs to be “appropriate” for the situation – “where people are commuting, so it’s gotta make sense as far as volume and the type of music that’s played,” Mueller says. “It was pretty easy for us to get in,” he continues, with my previous rock bands the music wouldn’t have been appropriate. What we’re playing in the subway is a stripped down version of our work because when we play for festival shows or clubs, we have two full drum stations, we play metal percussion, we have a bass player, and another guy who plays all these stringed instruments – it’s just impossible to bring all those instruments into the subway.”
Once a band/musician is on board with MUNY, time slots at certain stops are allotted. If their schedule permits, Paul and Marc perform about three times per week.
Tonight, Paul has just finished his performance at Penn Station while Marc is playing elsewhere, further uptown.
Performing in subway stations to such large audiences continuously over the years, has Paul had any interesting experiences or encounters with other musicians as far as collaborations are concerned?
“One of the bigger things we got chosen for just by playing in the subway was this HBO movie, ‘Subway Stories’ in 1997 which was directed by Jonathan Demme.” For Subway Stories, Mecca Bodega recorded songs, all of which are featured in the movie.
As Mueller speaks, I notice a thick strap of golden bells – the size of walnuts – tied to one of his ankles. The strap of bells that Mueller wears are the kind of accessories Pakistani and Indian classical dancers wear on both of their ankles during dance performances. In South Asia, the straps of bells are called ghoongroos – pronounced ghoong-oo-roose.
“I got them from Drummer’s World,” Mueller says with a laugh, “I saw dancers wearing them once. It’s a really nice added sound.” He shakes the strap. Amidst the loud speaker announcements, they jingle loudly like an unabashed South Asian woman vying for attention.
“If I’m playing the hand drum with this, it’s like someone’s playing a shaker. It’s just another layer of percussion.”
Mueller loves multi-layered music. “In other parts of the world you can just have the sound of drums as music. What interests me with drums and percussion when it’s treated as a multi-layer of instruments all together as one unit, is really exciting.” Mueller prefers that rather than “just playing a drum kit and supporting a singer.”
It’s almost 10pm and we begin walking towards the uptown number 1 train. We’re both knackered. The station is just as busy. Mueller will be getting off at Times Square on 42nd Street to take another train to Brooklyn, while I need to hop off at 116th, at Columbia.
Mueller begins telling me a little more about Subway Stories, how HBO put an ad in the paper inviting people to send in their best real life experiences in the city’s subway stations and how Mecca Bodgea was discovered by the movie’s crew.
We’re making small talk before our train arrives. Steel on steel, rumbling away in the distance, the train is roaring to a stop a few minutes into casual conversation. Mueller looks ahead, not making eye contact. “When someone feels the streets of New York are dangerous or the subway systems are dangerous – it’s got that reputation you know – and when they see someone with an instrument playing, they immediately feel calmer,” Mueller says.
“I mean why would I set up my expensive instrument here and have a bag of money out?”
Class assignment – Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism