The city is my stage: Chicago’s street musicians

By Amanda Murphy

It’s the slight hum you hear as you exit the train every morning. The soft sounds of Otis Redding’s “Stand By Me” make their way through the tunnel, fighting the thunderous roar of passing trains as passengers hurriedly make their way to their destination. To a certain extent, it almost becomes part of other horns, sirens and trains-—the sounds of the city.

As prolific as they are, street musicians often go unseen, getting mixed in with the rest of the hustle and bustle. But if one were to stop for a moment to actually listen, they would be distracted from their mission and absorbed into the moment. With the competitive music scene of the city, these men and women use train stations and street corners as their stage, playing to thousands of pedestrians who walk past them every day. Despite the harsh weather conditions and rude citizens they often have to deal with, most of them are happy just to have the opportunity to play and be heard by anyone who takes a second to listen.

For almost two years, Kebin Andri-Benjamin Martin has used his time between jobs to perform as a Chicago Transit Authority and street musician. Despite his short time as a street performer, Martin has been playing the guitar for more than 60 years. He also dabbles in some blues, he said, as he wailed a fast and impressive string of chords on his $10,000 guitar. Unlike many street musicians, Martin’s venues aren’t limited to CTA platforms and city streets. He also plays shows at jazz and blues hotspots around the city. But if he has the time and gets the chance, he would rather be doing what he loves than sitting around.

“If I don’t have jobs, I come down here and do the music,” Martin said. “I hate standing still.”

One of the most difficult parts of being a street musician is the constant harassment from police, he said. There are two CTA stations, Jackson and Monroe, where street musicians are legally able to play, but the city requires them to purchase two separate permits to perform legally, one for CTA platforms and one for the streets. Even with the necessary permits, Martin said there is still backlash from officers.

“They have hundreds of other projects going on for the CTA, and yet they want to arrest us for bad notes,” he said.

Across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street, Michael Upton expertly and delicately plays the saxophone, his instrument of choice for 53 years. He refers to this spot as a crossroads, a place of high traffic where he is able to play to a large number of tourists and locals who pass by on their daily commute.

“Since I’ve been here, there haven’t been any accidents, so I feel good,” Upton said, chuckling.

He said his main reason for choosing this spot is the many creatives in the area, and artists will always support artists, even when no one else does. Like Martin, Upton plays his saxophone in his leisure time, displaying the love of the instrument he has been mastering since he was 7 years old.

“Chicago needs street musicians because it’s got the blues,” he said. “But people that are blue stop by sometimes and say, ‘Thank you for playing your music.’ That makes me feel good.”

Jose Perugachi has been playing in CTA stations and on Chicago streets for more than four years. Originally from Ecuador, Perugachi said he first began performing when he was unable to find a job. Unlike your average street musician, he plays Bolivian and Romanian pan flutes, using different models depending on the type of song, be it meditation-type music, traditional South American songs or what he described as more romantic tunes. Perugachi is one of the more unique musicians because his hands are not fully developed, leaving him unable to perform most tasks. However, he would never let that stop him from enjoying what he loves to do most.

“Music is my life. People like music, and it’s good for me.”

Both Sean Nagata and Shakir Lee have been playing in the tunnel that connects the Jackson Blue and Red line stations for more than three years. However, this April day was the first they performed together. With their equipment set up on opposite sides of the narrow tunnel, Nagata played his guitar and Lee his keyboard, working with each other on an upbeat song. This spot is where they first met, but they decided to collaborate instead of compete.

“There’s someone at every station nowadays, so you have to make sure you get here early,” Nagata said.

Lee agreed that being a street performer is competitive and added that the community of musicians is not understanding.

“A lot of people get into fights over a spot,” he said.

Lee plays year-round in CTA stations that serve as a sort of shelter from Chicago’s harsh and unpredictable weather. However, in order to get a spot and avoid confrontation, he arrives as early as 3 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t leave until 7 p.m. Nagata sticks to playing in warm weather, as he’s then able to play both in stations and outdoors.

“I do it in the summer because that’s when everyone is out and in a good mood,” he said. “That’s when people give good money [laughs].”

Although he plays in other venues around the city, Nagata is just happy to be able to do what he loves for a living any time he wants to, whether he has a show booked

or not.

“I don’t do it so much for the money,” he said. “I just want to get my music out there and share it. It’s my passion, and I need to be doing this to live a happy life.”