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Independent Sound: Mecca Bodega tells their "Subway Stories"

Independent Sound: Mecca Bodega tells their "Subway Stories"

by Amanda N. Nanawa

With a didjeridoo in hand, a nervous man (played by clown/actor, Bill
Irwin) glances at a hot dog vendor, curious at the fast food for sale.
After the vendor debates the differences between a beef frank and
Italian sausage, the man purchases the beef frank. He slaps some
death-tingling relish over the hot dog, bites into it and before he can
mutter another word, grabs a super sized beverage and hustles through
the subway station while the music pumps his adrenalin. Suddenly, two
women walk past him. They exchange glances, staring at his provocative
instrument. Their image burned into his memory, like a slow motion scene
on rewind. All the while, the music drifts into a cavernous void,
slipping us into another vignette of “Subway Stories“.

The music of Mecca Bodega is featured in “Subway Stories”, an HBO
original production recently released on video, executive produced by
Jonathan Demme, Rosie Perez, and Edward Saxon. Various directors such as
Abel Ferrara, Ted Demme, and Julie Dash take helm at the series of
vignettes while an ensemble cast draws life to the stories set around
the New York City subways.

For two years, the band considered the subway terminals a comfortable
stage, playing under the banner of the Music Under New York arts
program: a program that selects, schedules, and promotes performers to
play around subway and train terminals. Millions of people rush by and
do take notice of percussionist Marc Mueller, drummer/brother Paul,
guitarist/vocalist Marlon Cherry, and percussionist/Australian didjeridoo
player Simon 7. Little did the band know that one of the millions of people
who listen to their music would be Jonathan Demme.

indieWIRE: How did the band get involved with “Subway Stories”?

Paul Mueller: I guess it was Rosie Perez’s idea. She had put an ad in
The New York Times to have people submit their most interesting story
that happened to them in the subway. They got, I think, about a thousand
or more people who wrote in their stories — the most bizarre or
spectacular. And then they picked, I think, about 50 of them and started
finding directors for each vignette. At that point, they went around the
subway system with video cameras with the idea that they would use
subway musicians in some parts of the movie and they videotaped us. I
got a call and I sent in one of our c.d.’s and, I guess, Jonathan Demme
saw the videotape of us and heard our c.d. And so, he wanted to use us
in his segment. The other directors saw us also, and unanimously decided
that they wanted us to do the score for the whole thing. They wanted
something to be the thread that tied all the stories together and Demme
decided that the music should be that.

iW: He basically made a nod to the band by including them in the film.
Did he decide that or was that a collective effort that all the
directors wanted to place a nod for the band?

Mueller: That was Demme’s idea because that was his segment. Originally
the way it was before it got edited, he had shot a bunch of different
scenes with Bill Irwin. The idea was that in between some of the
vignettes, Irwin would be trying to get to us in the subway. That was
all Jonathan Demme’s piece that was supposed to be interwoven throughout
the whole movie. After it got edited so much, they ended up just doing
it at the beginning and at the end.

iW: If Mecca Bodega had a subway story, what would it be?

Mueller: (laughs) That’s hard to put as one story, because the things
that we’ve seen, things that happen down in the subway… Every time I
think that I’ve seen it all, something else happens that’s completely
bizarre. I think, generally one of the nicest parts about playing in
the subway is that…the people in New York are pretty honest and direct
about what’s going on. And so, when we’re playing in the subway, we’re
able to play to such a wide variety of people and backgrounds. It’s
different playing in a club where people are usually in some sort of age
bracket or background or whatever, depending on the club that it is. In
the subway, you’re getting people from all different backgrounds and age
groups now standing together and listening to the music at the same
time. (The) energy is really unique and sometimes you get Wall Street
people dancing with homeless people or an old lady dancing with a young
boy from a different ethnic background.

iW: Do people approach you and tell you that their perception of the
city has changed after listening to you or other subway musicians?

Mueller: Yeah. I think people don’t have a conscious thought about this,
but any time — whether you’re a tourist or a New Yorker — there’s a
subway musician playing in that area, immediately the idea is that it’s
a safer environment because somebody wouldn’t be there playing their
instrument if there was some sort of risk of being robbed.

When there’s people playing music in the subways, it’s a real positive
thing. What someone would consider to be a dangerous or stressful
environment, (the music) turns (it) around to a real positive thing in a
different atmosphere. When people are playing music in the subway
system, tourists from all over get exposed to that and New York has a
different facade, a more positive one.

[Mecca Bodega can be seen and heard at subway stations and train
terminals such as the 1 and 9 subway stop on 33rd and 5th Ave., Grand
Central station, or Penn Station — the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) on
34th and 6th. Their new c.d. “Hammered Dulcimer” (Fang Records) is
described as “ethereal music for the soul…”. The soundtrack to “Subway
Stories” (Hybrid Recordings) is currently in stores and the film is now
available for rental.]

[Whenever you’re in Manhattan and would like more information on dates,
places, and times of performances, contact Paul Mueller at

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