LISTEN TO THE SAMPLER of POWER FUERZA
We met Benjy Melendez of the Bronx gang The Ghetto Brothers in a West Village cafe in New York. Over a cup of coffee, he told us his story. As he drew us deeper into the tale, something quickly became very clear. Benjy Melendez is a true politician. How else could a group of teenagers from the ghetto have united the violent gangs of New York in the 70’s with music? The Ghetto Brothers not only brokered the 1971 peace agreement between the warring gangs of the Bronx and Harlem, they directly influenced future generations musical taste by paving the way for the development of the hip-hop music scene.
We were there to talk about Truth and Soul Records reissue of the Ghetto Brothers “Power Fuerza” record 40 years after the original release. The reissue is a thing of beauty, with great care poured into the packaging, including remastered audio and an 80-page liner notes booklet, with rare photos from gang members, and interviews with group and cultural historians by Jeff “Chairman” Mao. Buy the deluxe reissued CD HERE
What emerged from the confabulation was a much deeper story, and Melendez’ attention was riveted to the only member of AMFM’s party who was actually not interviewing him at all, musician Reno Perez. As we filmed, a rapport developed between the politician and the musician. As the two men of separate generations conversed, similarities between their respective cities of New York and Corpus Christi, Texas became obvious.
As Melendez tells it, the story of the Ghetto Brothers is about values that are important in life. Values like love, respect of women, and family. The question begged – how did a man from the tough streets, surrounded by drugs, prostitution and vice, arrive at these values? The answer was simple. Melendez attributes it all to his family’s core beliefs, as they are Sephardic crypto-Jews who practiced their religion in secret while being part of the Hispanic community. It’s a tale with deep roots, going back to the 14th Century and the Spanish Inquisition.
Corpus Christi is also a city once conflicted by gang violence and strong religious beliefs. The mix tends to incubate many soul searching musicians. As the two men talked, and the story unfolded, minutes turned to hours. As the older man spoke of the past, the younger man listened intently. This era in history happened to be the times in which Perez was born.
The Ghetto Brothers music reflects the influence exerted by the strong family values they were raised with. Jeff Mao gives this overview of the album in the liners: “Recorded ‘on a warm day’ in a single studio session, and released – to the best of the surviving band members’ recollections – in 1972, it’s the lone official album from a legendary South Bronx street gang-turned-activist-community-organization. Given this information, one might expect the GB band’s oeuvre to be that of socially-conscious protest songs. But Power Fuerza isn’t nearly so easily categorized. Stylistically, it’s a confluence of both driving and gentle sounds and sensibilities. It’s the product of teenaged Puerto Rican New Yorkers weaned on ’60s pop-song romance and lovely Beatles harmonies experimenting with traditional Latin and heavy Latin-rock rhythms, proudly declaring their nationalist allegiance while creating their own distinctly Nuyorican inner city blues. At its root it’s a celebration of life – an inspired, emotionally unguarded cache of tracks cut by the band as though turning the tide of devastation of their crumbling South Bronx surroundings could be achieved through the exuberance of their performances.”
A documentary called “Rubble Kings” by filmmaker Shan Nicholson, who is a DJ in New York City, details the history of the tough New York gangs. Nicholson originally had another project started, “Downtown Calling,” about NYC Club Culture in the late 70s – early 80s. (Both films have been featured at the Austin Film Festival.) As Nicholson inquired and was led from source to source about the original project, Benjy Melendez emerged as an instrumental figure, and “Rubble Kings,” was the result.A rare record shop Nicholson frequented, A1 Records, which specialized in funk and soul, had the Ghetto Brothers Album on the wall with a $1000 price tag. As Nicholson recalls, Melendez “kept following me” as he dug deeper into the history. What he found was that Melendez and the Ghetto Brothers paved the way for modern day hip-hop by breaking down the neighborhood barriers. As the borders came down, the former warring gangs would have block parties where music was the focus. The Ghetto Brothers went from gang to social reform movement to band. Benjy Melendez is a visionary, the head of a group of young men who reached out and embraced their enemies by making peace with music.
At the end of the interview, we felt that we were just given a peek at an intricately woven tapestry of events connected through time and space from 500 years ago into the present. The tapestry is not finished, as this turned out to be a fortuitous meeting between two like-minded musicians.
GHETTO BROTHERS – HISTORY
The history of gang life, in New York City and elsewhere, isn’t a new tale. Looking back to the earliest days of the island’s [Anglo] founding – glorified Hollywood-style in Gangs of New York through popular fables like The Warriors – the Cliff’s Notes say: banding together in social groups has always been a necessity linked to urban living and survival in America.
In the tumultuous 1960s, gang life in New York’s five boroughs took a different course, with young Latinos and African-Americans gaining power and respect (or at least reverence born out of fear) through these social unions. But, as any sociologist worth their salt will tell you, gangs are not usually formed to tear down society. They are, at their essence, born from a need for individual survival and as quasi-familial environments.
As the ‘60s drew to a close in New York, many gang leaders in the Bronx saw the writing on the wall – self-destructive and selfish actions within ranks exacerbated by aggressive police infiltration and harassment would clearly bring about the implosion of even the most powerful clans if they did not start using power in different ways. While some struggled to keep up, other capos were already there – enter Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez of the Ghetto Brothers.
The South Bronx’s Ghetto Brothers, originally literally formed from the Melendez family unit (Benjy, Robert and Victor) – who came to New York in the 1950s from Puerto Rico – were always a bit different. They had their share of incidents with violence and crime, but Benjy also pushed his crew into uplift-the-community territory.
As noted by respected author and journalist Jeff “Chairman” Mao in the reissue’s extensive liner notes, “By mid-1971, Benjy’s social conscience and interest in Puerto Rican nationalism dovetailed with the rise of young urban activist groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Catching the revolutionary spirit in the air, the Ghetto Brothers eradicated junkies and pushers from their neighborhood, cleaned parks and garbage-strewn empty lots, and participated in clothing drives and breakfast programs.”
As the Ghetto Brothers gathered daily in their clubhouse on East 162nd Street in the early ‘70s, they brought another aspect to their legacy: musicianship. Influenced as much by the Beatles – Benjy, Robert and Victor were in a neighborhood tribute group in the mid-‘60s called Los Junior Beatles – and doo-wop harmonies as by Santana and Tito Puente, they quickly cooked up a potent, NYC-flavored musical stew. It was a melting pot of styles gobbled up by a growing fanbase, who heard them on the street or, on occasion, traveled across gang lines to check the scene.
After jamming and building up enough tunes, the GBs garnered the attention of local record store and record label owner Ismael Maisonave (Mary Lou Records / Salsa Records). After agreeing to his invitation to put their music on tape, the group rehearsed furiously and gathered material. In the summer of 1972, they were ready.
The album’s eight tracks were recorded in one day at Manhattan’s Fine Tone Studios on 42nd Street, produced and engineered by Latin studio maven Bobby Marin. Seven of the eight are originals written by Benjy and/or Victor Melendez. Arrangements were written on the spot. The result: a beautiful, absolutely innocent audio snapshot by three brothers, their friends and a powerful gang of musical energy.
DJ Akalepse of Truth & Soul Records explains, “As New Yorkers and obsessive record collectors, we are excited to reissue one of the rarest and most unique records to ever come out of this city. Beyond the amazing music, this reissue also gives us the opportunity to bring an overlooked and extremely important era of New York City’s history to a new audience. And I should add that I’m also thrilled because now I can finally have a copy of my own.”
The record, released on Maisonave’s Salsa label in 1972, was a local hit, but to the disappointment of the group it never caught fire with listeners nationwide, thanks to lackluster promotion. A mint LP to this day fetches well into triple-digits on Ebay and the album is so hard-to-find that most group members do not even own their own copy.
The original unit featured on Power Fuerza stopped performing together in the mid-’70s, as different members banded into musical outfits including Nebulus and Street the Beat. But an energized incarnation of the Ghetto Brothers remains a steady-gigging unit to this day: a four-decade legacy still standing – and sounding – strong. And still a family affair: the current lineup features Benjy and Robert Melendez (brother Victor passed away in 1995) as well as Benjy’s son Joshua on bass and Robert’s son Hiram on drums.
As guitarist Robert Melendez says in the liner notes, regarding their dual lives on the streets and on-stage: “Once we started playing music, [people] didn’t see the colors. They were just there to feel the vibe. To hear what you were saying… your voice and your guitar. It was only when you stopped the music that everything came back.”
And group leader and vocalist Benjy Melendez explains Power Fuerza this way: “We were doing rock n’ roll but we added a little soul for our black brothers, Latin for those who like Latin, rock n’ roll for those who like rock n’ roll. So that’s why the Ghetto Brothers were an amalgamation of all these styles. If you were black you heard something there. If you was white you heard something here. If you was Latino you heard the congas and timbales. So we added all this flavor and that’s what people liked about us. What they really liked was the message.”
The original back-cover inscription speaks volumes as well:
“If the Ghetto Brothers’ dream comes true, the world will learn that the ‘little people’ wish to be acknowledged, wish to be properly educated in order for them to pass on their knowledge to their children, and proudly inform them about their heritage and culture, and be a functioning part of the dream of America. If the Ghetto Brothers’ dream comes true, the ‘little people’ will be ‘little people’ no more, and make their own mark in this world. Listen to the Ghetto Brothers… and take heed.”
Power Fuerza lineup:
Benjy Melendez – vocals
Victor Melendez – bass
Robert Melendez – guitar
David Silva – lead guitar
Chiqui Concepcion – congas
Luis Bristo – drums
Franky Valentin – timbales
Angelo Garcia – bongos
Ghetto Brothers at Truth & Soul Records: http://truthandsoulrecords.com/artists/the-ghetto-brothers
Ghetto Brothers on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Ghetto-Brothers/302701625365