StreetMusicMap, a crowdsourced global map of street music performance launched in 2014, recently rolled out a new podcast showcasing New York City’s cast of musical characters. Since the Brazilian journalist Daniel Bacchieri created the site in 2014, more than 700 collaborators have contributed video, recordings, and geographic details about buskers around the world. With the new podcast, StreetMusicMap Radio, the “global report on street music” digs a little deeper into the stories of individual artists, giving them a space to tell their own stories beyond what you hear in their songs.
Alice Tan Ridley stars in the first episode. She’s been singing American gospel and R&B in New York subway stations full-time since 1992, when, after 21 years in New York raising a family and teaching handicapped children in the public school system, she decided to change it up. The podcast intersperses recordings of her subway performances with her reflections on the role of singing in her life. Her voice rises from the background noise of trains and conversation. As the background noise melts away, a sample from her album kicks in with a strong drumbeat. It’s a song called “You’re Better Than That,” and she says it’s inspired by the saying that it takes a village to raise a child.
“You ever heard the saying?” she asks. “When your parents are not there, there are other parents looking at what you’re doing and they’ll… tell you if you’re doing something wrong or if you’re being a good person. So that’s where that song came from. ‘You know you’re better than that. Your mama taught you better than that.’”
It’s a song about community, guidance, and the way lives are shaped in public. In some ways, Ridley’s like a parent in the village—only instead of warning against bad behavior, she’s urging commuters to loosen up and feel some emotion. “What I do is let people know that it’s alright to sing a song,” she says. “Songs is like crying. When you cry you have a good cry, and after that good cry, everything is over, you’re solid again, you’re moving on.”
The second episode profiles Michael Taliaferro, or “Bongo,” who has been playing his djembe on New York City subways since 1994. Born and raised in Baltimore, he says he’s been a world traveler since he was 17. In one recording, his voice comes crackling and clear to address a crowd, and he introduces himself and his subject: drum culture and ethnomusicology. Then it’s quiet, and he speaks into a microphone, telling how he came to New York in ‘94 to play a few gigs with Richie Havens with no permanent job or long-term plan. That’s when he started playing on the trains. When he explains the history of drums as communication tools and signals for war and celebration, you can tell he’s refined the speech over years.
Before “Morse code, telegrams, telephones, smartphones, we used drums to communicate from one village to the next,” Bongo says. Now, he uses the drum—and history lessons—to communicate with the village around him.