If you have ever travelled the Boston subway system (the MBTA) and, in particular, the Red Line through Park Street Station, you probably already know Salvador Medrano in a way (or at least you have heard him). Salvador is one of many musicians who ply their trade and talent in the subways of Boston. With the quick precision of a master guitarist, and a soft voice filled with passion and soul that he puts into every song he played, Salvador stood out from the crowd of musicians for whom the subway is their concert hall. The “bigness” of his music contrasted with his diminutive size (around 5’3” and a thin man) and his age (in his late seventies).
Playing a classical nylon stringed guitar, Salvador’s music spanned a range that included music from his homeland of Guatemala, or a Spanish favorite, a breezy Brazilian bossa nova tune, or an Italian ballad. Although there are the many people we see or meet in our daily routine (be it on the street or in the subway) but never really know, I knew Salvador was talented by any measure.
At the time, I was working on a photographic project in the subway as a way to make use of my time commuting to and from Boston and to pursue my personal passion and second vocation, photography. The idea came to me after traveling the subways of Boston for almost a year to get to and from my new job downtown. You can’t really travel the subway system without encountering a musician. You can find subway musicians in just about any subway system in the world (including Boston) and while the quality, talent, and skill varies widely, for me the musicians are a diversion from the routine of traveling from one place to another where I can listen for a few moments while waiting for a train and then leave a few dollars behind as a way of saying thank you.
One evening as I was walking down to the train platform with a friend I could hear Sal playing (he is that distinctive) and I expressed how I wished he had a CD of his music. When we arrived at the platform, low and behold Salvador had CD’s for sale. I purchased one immediately and when I got home sent an email to the address on the CD case explaining who I am and what I had been doing photographing musicians in the subway (I had made many photos of Sal). Salvador’s wife Annie called me immediately and invited me to their home.
After talking with Sal, with Annie interpreting (Sal could not speak English), I asked if he would mind me photographing him as part of a photo documentary project. Sal was also dealing with cancer which at the time was in remission but he was still actively performing. Sal agreed and for the next two years I would continue to visit with Sal and Annie in their home and also attend the many venues where Sal (and many of his friends and fellow musicians) would perform. Parties, celebrations, or just “jams” were common and regular. Annie would also text me when Sal was at a hospital next door to where I worked getting tests done and tell me to bring my camera. Even then Sal would bring his guitar and pass the time playing while waiting.
Finally in January of 2013, I received an email from Annie that Sal was finally beginning to succumb to the cancer which he had been battling since I had come to know him. Sal was still living at home but it would not be long before he would need more care. I brought my camera (this time to also shoot some video) and decided to also bring an audio recorder and interview Sal. Although I knew some of Sal’s history and background, what came of the interview was extraordinary.
Sal was a classically trained musician (a child prodigy in a way) who had performed for presidents, at the United Nations, on television, and all around the world with various bands. His career ran almost 65 years. He left Guatemala (and much of his fame, success, and connections) to come to the United States (possibly to escape persecution during the civil war in Guatemala but Sal was quiet on that regard). Annie brought out photo after photo of Sal’s life in pictures taken throughout the years. The billboard posters, photos from the television sets, performances, photos of Sal as a young child, letters. . . it was all there. Annie had scanned almost everything and gave me a memory stick to use however I could for the project.
By March, Sal’s condition had gotten worse and he was in a hospital and then eventually moved to a nursing home. My final visit with Sal, Annie, and several friends in the nursing home was actually celebratory and while Sal could no longer hold and play his guitar, his friends could and Sal clearly enjoyed the time and the music. Three days later, Sal succumbed to his illness with Annie holding him at the end.
Some might think that playing in the subway might be a low point for a musician such as Sal but he didn’t see it that way. It was a chance to continue to play his music and it seemed that any chance Sal had to perform, he took it, like the consummate professional that he was. In the end, it was always about the music and what drove him to be the hard working musician that he was.
There are so many stories left to tell in the subway. Some are ordinary and others extraordinary but everyone has a story and for me, the camera has become a way by which I can engage with others, a kind of excuse to get know someone, a stranger, and hear their story and sometimes the stranger becomes a friend.
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