The Underground Economy: Using the Gift of Music
By Ellison Libiran*
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Street performers have always furnished the busy arteries of the city. From Metro stations to Union Square, music is almost inescapable in this town. But among the medley, an open violin case and a velvety voice emerge.
Twenty-four year-old Karla Mi Lugo has been street performing for four years. Up and down the West Coast and San Francisco is her current stage. Originally from Georgia, her transient spirit brought her to the Golden State to see what business the Fog City could offer.
Street performing is Mi Lugo’s main source of income. She says 40 bucks a day is good enough for her. Mi Lugo is part of the growing under ground economy, a market where service is given without contracts or receipts and the term “under the table” is the password. Although Mi Lugo’s work isn’t forbidden like some others in the underground, her persistent dedication of going out and parking herself at a street corner and playing music proves she’s a true member.
Mi Lugo’s unique act sets her apart from other buskers. She sings, plays violin, and balances on a ball (usually a globe), all at the same time. Her resonant voice transforms her into a bohemian Madeleine Peyroux with hints of Billie Holiday. Her violin playing accompanies her jazz blues songs sleekly and the circus-inspired ball balancing makes it a transcendental performance.
“[Performances] that are more of a spectacle tend to work out better,” Mi Lugo says.
“Like you really have to dress up or just be some kind of novelty, some kind of signature thing that will get responded to better than just a guitar.”
Mi Lugo’s music derives from years of constant traveling. She started singing when the café she was working at hosted open-mics and needed extra musicians. She then worked at a circus where she learned how to balance on top of a ball and decided to incorporate it in her act.
She describes her sound being inspired by an eclectic mix of jazz,Eastern European music, anarchist musicians and surrealist art. Butshe notes that her music career really took off after her heart was broken, which she describes as a “rite of passage in musicianship.”
Mi Lugo explains that when she sings, her songs are almost always improvised. She has phrases and lyrics that she uses but her songs fluctuate every time. This freestyle fashion makes her act that much more pure and passionate.
Her cost of production isn’t much of problem, she says that the strings on her violin have never broken and usually stays in tune. The only issue she runs into is when her globe breaks. Her constant use of the globe causes it to break or flatten on the top where she stands. She says that many of her friends have been replacing her globes.
Mi Lugo says that she hasn’t had a lot of confrontations with the police. Street performing after all is such an accepted event in the city that often cops don’t bother them at all. She says that little things like moving her tip case out of the way of people has been the only problem. But the main issue for cops, she explains, is the volume of the music and if passers-by complain of the noise. Mi Lugo’s songs are generally soft and draws praise.
She says that the money varies from day to day and it’s never the same even if she goes to the same spots. Sometimes she goes home with very little money and sometimes with enough to pay the bills.
“I’m still struggling between doing it for money and doing it for love and mixing the two,” Mi Lugo explains.
Besides performing as a job, Mi Lugo stresses that her main motivation for playing every day is to make a connection with her community through promoting music and art. She says that she likes performing for locals rather than tourists.
“I feel like the community is more receptive because they appreciate good music and art in their area, and tourists are looking more for something that they can take back with them,“ she adds.
Her favorite spot to play is the Mission District. She says that she loves the people there and can relate to the local artists and young crowd. You can catch her playing between 16th St. and Valencia.
Mi Lugo’s music hits just the right niche in San Francisco’s multifarious art scene that is easily embraced and desired, and hopefully, is reflected by the amount of bills her violin case accumulates.
The genuine sentiments of a true musician is alive in Karla Mi Lugo and, as a hard working performer, she is a beautiful light in the shadow economy.
*Republished under “Content Exchange” the original can be found on New American Media