Paris’s Performance Scene, Aboveground and Below

by Maria Yagoda:

For nearly a hundred years, casual tourists and devout Catholics alike have trod the steps of Paris’s iconic Sacré Coeur cathedral, panting their way up to the white marble basilica and its unparalleled view of the city below. These days, the steps of Sacré Coeur draw visitors for another reason: Iya Traoré. For this Guinean soccer prodigy, the base of the cathedral serves as a personal venue, one that he packs for every performance. On some days, it is easy to forget that this grand staircase ever had any other function. Eyes fixed and cameras out, tourists and Parisians gather to watch Traoré as he performs the “sun,” a signature trick where he makes big circles with his leg with the ball trapped between his shin and the top of his foot. But this is just the warm-up. Minutes later, the crowd cheers as he proceeds to do a handstand, with the ball still on his foot.

Traoré’s tricks have not only caught the attention of passersby. Television networks, presidents, and celebrity soccer players, from countries as far-flung as China, Mali, and Qatar, have taken interest in the world’s first, and best, “football freestyler.” Traoré has the streets of Paris to thank for his success, and now for a full-time career. After moving to Paris in 2000 from Guinea, Traoré began performing in tourist hotspots like the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysée and Chatelet. He soon built a large, and eventually global, following. Traoré now earns roughly 100 to 150 Euros a day, though for him earnings are of little importance. “Above all, I do it for the pleasure, then the money comes after,” he said.

Traoré impresses the crowd with his upside down maneuvers, which he performs on his tours through Western Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. (Yagoda/TYG)

Like a low-tech YouTube, the streets and metro stations of Paris are an opportune setting for any amateur performer with aspirations of “making it big.” The constant flow of new eyes makes the streets a uniquely promising performance venue — and a uniquely brutal one. It’s a tough business, garnering the attention of hoards of strangers: a battle against headphones, Blackberries, and places to be. And it’s even tougher for unauthorized performers, who often work in complex, highly organized networks and struggle to avoid fines and confiscation of their instruments. Yet for both authorized and unauthorized performers, the streets are what finance their success — or, more often, mere survival.

Subway School

Jean Michael Grandjean has been a train conductor on the Paris Metro for 17 years. In his youth, he aspired to be a musician, playing his songs in the hallways of large metro stops. Grandjean remembers learning — by watching the amount of change in his cup and the smiles on passing faces — that audience interaction is an essential component of success. That’s what makes the streets so special: performers are on everyone else’s level, unlike traditional concert venues with elevated stages and far-away seating. Street performance is what Grandjean described as “une bonne ecolé” (“a good school”).

The metro is a virtual boot camp for aspiring musicians. Facing the constant judgment of Parisians navigating through the streets and metros “is like nowhere else and is something you must experience,” said Grandjean. In fact, many established musicians perform in the metros for that exact reason: to go back to the real roots of performing, where they have only their skill to offer.

The metro has become a popular space for artists to promote themselves. Performers use the corridors to hand out leaflets for upcoming shows, sell Cds, and circulate demo songs.

Of course, the venue comes with its difficulties. While a good (“and I mean good,” Grandjean emphasized) accordion player can make upwards of 100 Euros a day in the metro halls, guitarists face a greater challenge. The coming and going of trains, clanking heels and loud conversation make it difficult to hear a guitar strumming far away.

The performers who play inside actual subway cars don’t face this challenge. On line four, two young teens routinely run into subway cars with their stereo and microphone just as the doors close. The girl turns on the beat and dances while her companion raps into his portable microphone. He may be good, but at the hour of the early morning commute, his rhymes often go unappreciated. This duo struggles, rarely making more than 20 Euros a day. After each performance they pace the car with their money hat. Some passengers take a newfound interest in what they’re reading while others shift their gaze out the window to the unremarkable view of tunnel. At the next stop, the performers grab their gear and jolt to the next car.

These performances in the close quarters of subway cars are technically illegal. If caught, performers can have their instruments confiscated and pay fines of up to 75 Euro. To perform legally in the halls of the stations, musicians must audition in front of a large selection committee. roughly 1,000 artists show up to the biannual audition, and some 350 are granted authorization by the jury made up of veteran performers like Grandjean and personnel of the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports). Just under half of the performers are from France, while others hail from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

“The authorization committee elevated the art of street performance,” Grandjean said. With the badge and the blessing of officials, those selected have free reign in the long corridors.

During the selection process, the committee attempts to weed out the business-minded from the artistic. Grandjean stressed the distinction between those who perform as artists and those who perform solely to make money. Performers in the latter category often operate “mafia-style.” Players give earnings to corrupt officials who coordinate various zones of the metro with a community of illegal musicians.

“Mafia organizations send people to play in the hallways and cars of the metro and essentially steal from them at the end of the day. You could even compare these networks to those of prostitution — they function in the same way,” said Grandjean.

Performance Outside the Law

Yet a large group of metro performers who lack the special badge relies heavily on these networks, which are often the only choice for economic survival, however corrupt and un-artistic they may be.

The larger community of illegal musicians is divided into networks for each of the 14 metro lines. Each group splits up the day’s work. Musicians will go on a half-hour “circuit,” running in and out of cars as the subway goes to the end of the line and back.

Frequently these musicians meet at secret assembly points, allowing them to exchange information on the whereabouts of “les controlleurs,” the RATP officials patrolling the metro. Some junctures are safer than others for these musicians to congregate and exchange tips, especially those that are farther away from the more centralized areas.

Officials, authorized performers and passengers often look down on these musicians. In an interview with The Sunday Times, 20-yearold Milen (not his real name), who has performed on line five since he left Yugoslavia, defended his work: “If we didn’t do this we would have to be robbers, and we aren’t robbers. But this is difficult — we have to try and make people smile, but sometimes it is difficult to smile.” Many of these musicians have little reason to smile themselves, coming from countries where work is scarce and work in the field of music even scarcer. In Paris, their new home, they must always be on alert for the police.

Even quasi-celebrity Traoré has had struggles with the police, especially when he started. He too must always remain alert. “You must be lucky to perform on days when the police are in good humor. It is important not to look at them too much, because looking them in the eyes provokes them. Just stay calm and do what you need to do. If they tell you to stop, just stop without discussion,” Traoré explained.

Just as street performances of all types attract the occasional policeman, they also have the potential to attract crowds, a reward for any kind of entertainer. Creativity is a must to draw pedestrians, most of whom have somewhere to be or who have learned to avoid people on the street with change cups. Only the best performers are able to break through this boundary. regardless of art form, there is always the hope of making it big. But the vast, underground majority goes day-to-day with just the hope of getting by.

Maria Yagoda ’12 is a French major in Calhoun College. Contact her at