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

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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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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