In which we chat with some of the people who bring much-needed sanity to your morning commute.
Subway trains flew in and out of Yorkdale station in opposite directions. The glass tunnel connecting the TTC station to Yorkdale Mall was brutally chilly, but offered an absorbing view of the stark urban tangle of chain link fence, parking lots, multi-lane highways, and rails that define the area. Guitarist and TTC musician Adam Solomon appeared oblivious to the cold, likely thanks to the armour of black fleece he was wearing.
He was equally unperturbed by the constant flow of pedestrians, their heels clacking angrily down the hall, their whistles reverberating through the glass chamber. The only thing that appeared to ruffle him was the sudden, and frequent, blast of TTC announcements warning riders to stay back from the yellow line—and also, sometimes, regarding that thing we transit-goers all love to hate: service delays.
In his home city—Mombasa, Kenya—Solomon perfected his craft by playing at beach hotels and night clubs, and with well-known musicians like Papa Wemba from the Congo, and Ismael Lo from Senegal.
He moved to Canada 21 years ago, bent on escape from the oppression of his home country. “I believed that I was coming to a country where people are freely spoken, a democratic country,” he said.
What followed was a busy and varied career touring Canada with his pan-African band, The Afronubians. He released three of his own recordings, and even won a Juno for World Music Album of the Year in 2005. The latter was for his participation in African Guitar Summit, a collaboration between Canadian musicians hailing from such countries as Ghana, Kenya, and Madagascar.
Solomon is also committed to visiting schools, universities, and libraries during Black History Month. During these appearances, he said, he uses the power of storytelling and music to bring his culture alive. Solomon refers to his musical style as “African renaissance blues,” which in essence translates to a mélange of traditional East African folk music and Mississippi Delta blues.
Solomon relies on his TTC gig to fill any financial gaps, and he appears to enjoy it. Despite the fact that not a single commuter appeared even to acknowledge his existence during our visit, Solomon insisted that transit-goers are a chatty, even appreciative, bunch.
“I believe the music in the subway makes people happy, it brings people together,” he said. “Many people, when they hear me playing, they say, ‘Oh, you made my day.’”
While some commuters stop briefly to express their appreciation for his music, others stop for longer and more revealing chats. Solomon said that two people, one at Yonge Station and another at Finch, have told him that they were contemplating jumping in front of trains before hearing his music. He also believes that the presence of the musicians helps to cut down on person-on-person crime in the stations.
Solomon is convinced that the City of Toronto and the Ontario Arts Council should offer an honorarium to TTC performers. As it is, musicians audition for the chance to perform for tips. Once accepted, they pay the TTC $150 per year for the privilege.
When asked whether the tips are sufficient, Solomon said, “Sometimes you make it, sometimes you can’t make it. But the thing is, musicians should not be guessing, because we don’t guess in playing our instruments or playing the music … When you go in a bar or restaurant and there’s a waiter there who serves you food and drinks, you’re not going to say the waiter should only get tips and that is that.”
Up next for Solomon is the recording of his next solo album, which he hopes to release officially with the assistance of government grants. But on that December day he shouldered his guitar and belted out another tune. His guitar case was only sparsely lined with coins, but it was still early in the day, and the flow of pre-Christmas Yorkdale shoppers seemed never-ending.