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Madrid's Street Performers Now Must Audition To Hold Out A Hat

Jan 6, 2014
Originally published on January 6, 2014 6:03 am

On the train, in the park, on the famed medieval Plaza Mayor — the Spanish capital of Madrid is famous for its street performers.

And with more than a quarter of Spaniards out of work, more people than ever before have been crisscrossing the city with their violins and voices, for extra cash. People squeeze giant accordions onto the metro, and roll amplifiers on carts across cobblestones.

The street performers are a tourist attraction. But Madrid's mayor, Ana Botella, says the clamor has reached its limit.

A new noise reduction law that took effect New Year's Day prohibits amplifiers and requires buskers to move along every two hours and stay 75 yards away from the next crooner.

Musicians also must now pass an audition to be granted a free, one-year renewable permit to perform outdoors. Those who don't pass muster could face fines for disturbing the peace.

Musicians who've been fiddling, singing and strumming for money here for years — without needing permits — are angry.

"People know this city because of its life! Its nightlife, day life, music on the streets, happy people!" says pianist and singer Laura Nadal, 30, one of more than 300 buskers forced to audition at Madrid's Conde Duque Cultural Center. "We don't know why the city mayor wants us to be sad, and to not do art."

The mayor, for her part, says she's received complaints about noise pollution from residents of Madrid's tight medieval center, where music reverberates off stone facades and down cobblestone alleys.

"We want to offer the best impression possible to tourists, and allow local residents to get their rest, too," David Erguido, a Madrid city councilman, told reporters.

For the 26 percent of Spaniards who are unemployed, the idea of having to apply for a permit to merely sing in the street is an insult.

"The street is the only place where you can go [if you're out of work]. So if you can't sing in the street now, what are you going to do?" asks Gerardo Yllera, 33, who together with Nadal forms the Potato Omelette Band, which performs in English and Spanish on the streets of Madrid.

The Potato Omelette Band used a hidden camera to secretly videotape their audition for a busking permit. The video went viral on Spanish social media because of their lyrics — criticizing Madrid's mayor and her policies.

"Oh, my poor Madrid, my city. They are kicking out musicians and artists, and replacing them with police," the song goes. "There is no jury better than the hat — the hat you put on the floor to collect donations."

That stealth video has been viewed several hundred thousand times on YouTube. Nadal and Yllera have become local celebrities — the faces of opposition to Madrid's noise reduction law. Their street performances draw crowds now.

At one impromptu concert in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square, the duo dedicated their performance to Madrid's mayor. They had reason to be thankful. They'd just received good news: They were granted a one-year permit to perform in Madrid's streets.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's a reminder that a tough economy can change life in ways large and small. Spain has an unemployment rate of 26 percent. With six million people without jobs, the country's seen a spike in the number of buskers, street musicians. These performers have long been a part of Madrid's lively culture, but with so many people singing and strumming for money, the city is now requiring them to audition for permits, and those who don't comply face fines. From Madrid, Lauren Frayer sent this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On the train, the park, on the streets, Madrid is famous for its buskers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: With more than a quarter of Spaniards out of work, more and more people are crisscrossing the city with their violins and voices for extra cash. People squeeze giant accordions onto the metro and roll amplifiers on carts across cobblestones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: It's a happy clamor, but Madrid's mayor says it's reached its limit. A new law will prohibit amplifiers, require buskers to move along every two hours and stay 75 yards away from the next crooner. People who have been singing on the streets here for years are angry.

LAURA NADAL: People know the city because of its life, its nightlife, day life, music on streets, happy people. But we don't know why the city mayor wants us to be sad.

FRAYER: Laura Nadal is a professional pianist who sings in the street with her group, the Potato Omelette Band.

POTATO OMELETTE BAND: (Singing in Spanish)

FRAYER: She and more than 300 other musicians were forced to audition at this big cultural center in downtown Madrid for the privilege of holding out a hat in the street.

CARLOS: It's a joke. Yes, OK, you have five minutes? Play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MUSIC)

CARLOS: My name is Carlos. Mr. Black is my artistic name. I play in the streets 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GERARDO YLLERA: Now, you have to make a test to sing in the street.

(LAUGHTER)

FRAYER: Gerardo Yllera is another member of the Potato Omelette Band. For the unemployed, he says...

YLLERA: The street is the only place that you can go. So, if you can't sing in the street now, what are you going to do?

FRAYER: What the Potato Omelette Band did was use a hidden camera to secretly videotape their audition. The video went viral on Spanish social media because of their lyrics.

NADAL: So, it's like, oh, my poor Madrid, my city. They are taking the artists away to put police. There is no jury better than the hat, the hat you put on the floor to get the money.

FRAYER: That video of Laura and Gerardo's audition got several hundred thousand hits on YouTube. They've become the face of opposition to Madrid's noise reduction law. Their street performances draw crowds now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: And the band just got some news: They passed the audition and got a one-year permit to perform in the streets. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.