Move underground and you lose a little romance, perhaps, but gain pathos, for now artistic purity is waged against the stifling grime and horrid odors of a subway platform. This is where filmmaker Heddy Honigman went looking for street musicians, on the platforms and inside the trains of the Paris Metro, and her remarkable documentary The Underground Orchestra begins there. But just as the Bosnian fiddler or dreadlocked soul singer has started to flourish in the camera's eye, some arrogant Metro worker shuts down operations. It is illegal to film in the Metro. (Just think if it was criminal to submit it to poetry; we would have lost Ezra's Pound's haunting image for Parisian subway faces: "petals on a wet black bough." Or we would still have it, but Pound would have had something else to complain about.)
Honigman does not complain; she just takes her equipment aboveground into the musicians' homes, but that does not mean The Underground Orchestra is mistitled. Her subjects are, in every way, underground they are marginal, unknown, unheralded and, in many cases, undocumented immigrants on the run. The musicians in this film are world exiles, the victims and disaffected veterans of betrayed revolutions, dictatorial regimes, dwindled empires and genocide. The Bosnian fiddler once a violinist with his national opera went AWOL from the army during their vicious civil war. A Congolese rapper escaped from one of Mobuto's forced-labor camps. Most hauntingly, an Argentine pianist (not quite a street musician, but who cares?) survived torture during their dirty war. Just before they sawed off his hands, he said, "God forgives you. I will try to," and, inexplicably, the torture stopped.
Needless to say, all the sob stories on the streets of Paris won't net a musician a single dime. These folks have to deliver musically for their daily bread, and their performances are just as compelling as their narratives. Mama Keita, a Malian woman, sings with gorgeous fluidity and tenacious emotion. The Bosnian fiddler plays a stunning duet with his teenage son (who would rather be copping AC/ DC licks). A harpist from Venezuela plays his instrument with that lavish South American tone and is even more captivating when he picks up maracas to show how he first learned to accompany harpists by sounding like a horse.
Everyone filmed has his or her eyes wide open no blind street singers here. All the blindness deafness, really belongs to the Metro officials and the commuting public, who stare blankly at newspapers, completely tuned out to the underground orchestra soaring just above their heads.
Plays at 8 p.m. June 25 and 27 at Webster University.
The Underground Orchestra