It’s been well chronicled, just how bleak things looked in New York City in the 1970s, especially in the Bronx.
Riddled with unemployment, burned-out tenements and gang life, the borough constantly found itself becoming the butt of jokes from fellow New Yorkers as well as entertainers like Johnny Carson. When you told someone you were from the Bronx, you might have gotten the type of stares reserved for a veteran who served in Vietnam, a starving child in a Third World country or a criminal being given his sentence for a heinous crime. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best of times.
Regardless, Bronxites pride themselves on making the best out of the worst, and the Ghetto Brothers have been plucked from obscurity to remind people what making the best out of a bad situation sounds like.
In 1972, during one studio session, the Ghetto Brothers–a street gang-turned-community organization–fused their Nuyorican cultural sensibilities with rock and pop, creating a fascinating time capsule of an LP titled “Power Fuerza” (now being released on Truth and Soul Records). How they ended up recording an album is up for debate–as demonstrated in the liner notes of the album through interviews with surviving members–but we do know that reeling from the death of their “Peace Counselor” Cornell “Black Benjy” Benjamin, the group–which recently committed to a truce with other gangs in the borough–used music as an outlet for their grief. But not in the traditional sense.
The Ghetto Brothers’ musical release isn’t in the message, it’s in the fact that music was being made. Many of the songs center on romance, heartbreak, love and family. On “Got This Happy Feeling,” the hope of bringing a baby into the world is echoed by the jangling rhythm guitars, bouncy bass and Latin percussion coupled with then-traditional rock drumming. “There is Something in My Heart” uses early 1960s Beatles-like harmonies to talk about a relationship gone sour. If you close your eyes long enough, it might sound like an early recording of the Fab Four–right down to the “la la la” middle sequence that replicates the chorus’ melody.
The groovy, in every sense of the word, “Girl From the Mountain” gets an added push from the congas, which give the percussion a lift. The instrumental workout of “Mastica Chupa Y Jala” gives all of the members the chance to strut their musicianship and chops, and “You Say You Are My Friend” brings the Latin funk to the forefront with more ’60s pop-like melodies and harmonies. They also reserve one spot for showing love to the native homeland of many of the members with “Viva Puerto Rico Libre.”
Musically, “Power Fuerza” is the bridge from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, with rhythm-heavy backdrops and pretty melodies. Culturally, in many ways, you can call the Ghetto Brothers the precursor to hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa–a person who also used gangs to promote peace through music rather than hate through violence.
“The is Ghetto Brother power baby…from the Bronx,” states one member during the breakdown on “Got This Happy Feeling.” It’s an affirmation that your circumstances don’t make you who you are, but you should still be proud of how it molded you. Faced with adversity, “Power Fuerza” is a staunch and defiant document of love.