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In the subways, musicians put their souls on the lines for love and money

Dark. Grimy. Stale. Crowded. Crazy with music.

The subways are something to get through on the way to somewhere else for most Bostonians. For the subterranean musicians known as buskers, they're the place to be.

In French, the word ''busquer" means ''to prowl," as does the Italian word ''buscare." In Spanish, the word ''buscar" means to seek. So what are these subway musicians in search of?

''I want to change the world," says Michael Sullivan, a singer-guitarist who has been busking in Boston, changing his little corner of the Earth one tune at a time, since 1972. ''People hear the songs I write and sing in the subconscious of the subconscious."

Down on their luck, looking for a break, passing time, or using the subway as a live practice stage, the musicians tell stories as personal as their music.

Pumla Bhungane, 25, of Durban, South Africa, left his homeland to escape an oppressive racial climate and pursue his music career.

Gonzalo Silva, 31, a native of Boston, has turned his busking into a career, traveling to Chicago, New York, and Montreal to perform.

New T rules for musicians play well. Page 7

Performing in the subway, he says, ''affords ample opportunity for one to transcend chaos." His most recent album, self-produced, is titled ''Busker" and contains a book that begins: ''I went into the subway to perform my songs with the naive notion I would get discovered. Little did I know I would be doing the discovering."

Many don't like to talk about how much money they make. Those who do put the average at around $10 an hour. Some hint at more.

''People like us! We make five times what the average street musician gets down here," says Charlie Ronayue, 31, lead singer of the rhythm and blues trio The Third Life.

Ronayue says he hopes one day to take their music beyond the depths of the subway. For now, making ends meet will do. ''It's enough to live. It's tight, but it's possible," he says.

Whether performing for spare change for fun and practice, or with hopes of launching a career, the buskers all make an impression.

Says Julie Low, 19, as she sits with a smile next to Bhungane at the Harvard inbound Red Line stop: ''He is here so often. I am not leaving until he goes. It's just fun and relaxing . . . awesome. Better than 'American Idol'!"

Last December, the MBTA instituted new rules for subway performers, requiring them to pay $25 for annual permits, restricting areas where they can perform, and limiting the decibel level. At first, worried that the regulations would silence their business, many buskers complained loudly. Still, many have kept at it.

''I'll take anything I can get down there," says Silva, ''whether it be a smile, a wink, a thumbs-up, a gesture of silent applause, or even a shrug of the shoulders of those who wish they had spare change."

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