Benjamin “Lex” Tan shares his talents with people making the daily commute on Toronto’s subway system. Tan is one of 74 musicians who auditioned for the busker position to entertain Toronto commuters. Photo by Sheila Dabu Nonato

Subway busker spreads God’s love through song [w/ video]

By 
  • December 1, 2011

TORONTO - During the end-of-day rush hour at Sheppard subway station, TTC busker Benjamin “Lex” Tan strums his guitar, preparing to start his evening’s repertoire of pop music mixed in with rock, Christian contemporary and Christmas classics.

Although the pocket change is welcome (the most Tan’s made in a two- or three-hour session was $60), it’s the opportunity to share his talents and God’s love through the universal language of music that matters most, he said.

In fact, his most memorable “tip” from a TTC rider was a freshly baked pumpkin pie on his first day, Thanksgiving Monday.

Tan, 31, is a dramatic arts graduate from the University of Toronto and has taught drama full-time at St. Jude’s Academy of the Arts, a day program for adults with disabilities, for the past five years. He is also a member of the Newman Centre Youth Mass choir at the University of Toronto.

Tan is one of 74 musicians out of the nearly 160 who audition every year at the Canadian National Exhibition to get one of the coveted TTC licences to play at 25 designated subway stations.

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Music, he explains, echoes the human need for love.

“I remember attending a Theology of the Body workshop by (Catholic scholar) Christopher West and one of the things he said was, ‘If you look at the secular music out there, it is screaming about love,’ ” said Tan, who goes by Lex when performing, short for his middle name Alexander.

“The human heart is screaming for love, the experience of love, the absence of love, the presence of love. Music, like arts, is a way for the human soul to express the need for love.”

During the 5 p.m. rush, subway commuters scramble for the buses, while others, like frequent TTC rider Elizabeth, stop and listen. She recognizes the Christian contemporary tune being sung by Tan. An impromptu duet begins as they sing the lyrics to Hillsong’s “Hosanna.”

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“Heal my heart and make it clean,” they sing. “Open up my eyes to the things unseen. Show me how to love like you have loved me.”

“I love the music so much,” Elizabeth said. “I think it’s quite inspirational. It helps a lot of people that are passing through a lot of stuff.

“It calms them down. It makes them feel there’s hope for tomorrow.”

This is the message that Tan hopes resonates with other subway riders who hear his music.

Though the money earned is always welcome, Tan says it is the opportunity to spread God’s love through music that is the best part of playing at subway stations.

Though the money earned is always welcome, Tan says it is the opportunity to spread God’s love through music that is the best part of playing at subway stations.

- photo by Sheila Dabu Nonato

For Tan, performing is strongly connected to his Catholic faith.

Just like in his choice of plays to teach his drama students, Tan says he only sings “positive” songs that reflect his Catholic beliefs, omitting swear words and sexualized lyrics “to get the message (out) about God’s love.”

For instance, when covering Katy Perry’s hit song “Teenage Dream,” Tan substitutes “Let’s go all the way tonight” with “Let’s just fall into the night.”

It’s about “using our gifts and talents to benefit the world in the best way that God intended for you and for each and every one of us,” Tan said.

“(Music) speaks to me that way because that’s the way that God inspired King David when he wrote the psalms.”

Our gifts and talents, Tan said, “also come with a lot of responsibility.”

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