Best Way to Paris Metro? Practice, Practice, Practice

Ever wanted to learn to tango? Fancy trying your hand at making a West African drum? Or perhaps an English-style tea-tasting session? Then buy a ticket on the Paris metro.

Caught up by the World Cup fever sweeping France in advance of this month's soccer tournament, the Autonomous Paris Transport Authority (RATP) has joined in the fun. Each metro, or subway, line has been decked out to represent one of the competing countries and turned into an art-gallery-cum-concert-hall-cum-ethnic-restaurant.

Commuters can stop at the Gare de Lyon for a taste of Argentina, or at Miromesnil, near the presidential lyse Palace, to play Nigerian drums. Those less exotically inclined can sip tea or take a beginner's class in English on the route that runs to Orly Airport.

If all this sounds a long way from the cramped and monotonous journey that most urban wage slaves endure, that's the point. The RATP is seriously solicitous of its passengers' welfare. So solicitous, in fact, that the Authority even handpicks the buskers, or street performers, who play in its underground corridors.

Gone are the bohemian days when any street musician with a guitar and a beret, in which to collect money, could go down into the metro and sing for his or her supper. Nowadays, you have to pass a competitive audition for the privilege.

"We are not the conservatoire, but we do have strict rules," says Antoine Naso, the RATP official in charge of buskers. "The idea is to improve the quality of the music in the metro."

In the old days, authorities turned a blind eye to buskers, although strictly speaking they were not allowed to play in the metro. But a few years ago, says Mr. Naso, "we were infested by musicians - you couldn't get into a [subway] carriage without hearing one."

A lot of them came from Central Europe, especially Romania, and alongside the talented musicians were many children who just knew how to scratch out a few chords on a violin. They earned money because people paid them to stop.

So the RATP cracked down and began imposing 200 franc ($33) fines on musicians. But because passenger surveys showed that people like to hear music as they shuffle down the metro corridors, authorities decided to organize the best buskers into an entertainment corps.

Twice a year, Naso gathers a dozen or so RATP colleagues into a jury and holds auditions in a makeshift studio beneath his office. He has 250 badges to hand out, and about 800 musicians compete for them.

"The first criterion is quality," says Naso. "But we also consider style. We are not going to authorize 50 accordionists. We want all musical styles represented, and all cultures too."

A videotape of last month's audition proves his point: It shows three Africans in traditional dress playing balafons - xylophone-like instruments made from gourds - a French quartet in formal dress playing classical chamber music, a hot jazz band, and a group of poncho-draped Bolivians producing Andean airs on their panpipes.

Naso likes to think that his musicians play the metro for fun more than anything else. "They can't earn a living down there, but the metro has extraordinary acoustics so it's a good place to rehearse," he says. "And the musicians are in touch with the public there. They can see how different pieces of music go down with an audience."

That is not quite how Florian, an officially sanctioned fiddler from Romania, sees things.

"I play the metro because I have to. I need the money and I don't have enough work in restaurants or at parties," he says.

Not that it is particularly lucrative. Taking a break from playing folk dances at Chatelet station, he didn't take long to count the coins tossed into his violin case: 35 francs (about $6) for two hours' work.

People are not as generous as they used to be, laments Florian, who declined to give his last name.

Naso agrees, but he has a plan to improve the buskers' plight. "It's not really good for musicians to have to play standing in front of the ugly white tiles," he says.

"So this summer, we are going to install special spots for them, with splashes of color and a design motif of musical notes. We want to highlight our musicians," he says.

* Peter Ford, now the Monitor's Chief European Correspondent, once earned his living by busking on the Paris metro.

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