Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brothers Gonna Work It Out

Ghetto Brothers - You Say That You're My Friend
Ghetto Brothers - Ghetto Brothers Power

Forget gangsta rap – this is the real thing. I first came across the Ghetto Brothers when reading Jeff Chang’s incredible history of hip-hop, ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’. They were a New York gang based in the Bronx and became active during the late 1960s. They were heavily involved in Puerto Rican nationalism, and had a reputation as one of the more politically minded and less vengeful gangs, during a period when gang colours transformed the bombed-out city grid into a spiralling matrix of disputes. “If you went through someone’s neighbourhood, you were a target,” explained Carlos ‘Karate Charlie’ Suarez, the president of the Ghetto Brothers. “If you got caught, they beat the hell out of you.” At one point it was estimated that there were a hundred different gangs claiming 11,000 members, and that 70% were Puerto Rican, the rest black. Other gangs included the Black Spades, Savage Skulls, the Roman Kings, and the Savage Nomads.

The vice-president of the Ghetto Brothers was Benjamin Melendez, a 19-year-old who had founded the gang. According to Chang, Melendez was, “…a teenage diplomat turned young revolutionary – a gifted orator and organiser.” ‘Yellow Benjy’ was a fighter, but his real passion was music. As children, he and his brothers had won a talent contest singing Beatles songs. Melendez formed a Latin-rock band under the Ghetto Brothers name, featuring his brother and fellow songwriter Victor on bass, another brother Robert on rhythm guitar, and assorted players making up the rest of the band. All three were also members of the gang, but saw the band and their music as a way of the communicating their message to a wider audience.

Melendez was instrumental in organising a moderately successful truce between all warring factions in 1971 after one of the Ghetto Brothers, Cornell ‘Black Benjy’ Benjamin, was killed trying to prevent a fight between rival gangs. Instead of seeking revenge on those responsible for his death, Melendez and Suarez used the situation to bring all the gangs together to sign a momentous peace treaty. Change swept through the Bronx.

But for Melendez and his brothers, it was still the music that was their main focus. The sleeve notes for their one and only album ‘Power-Fuerza’ present the group’s ideologies and hopes for their music –

“This album contains a message; a message to the world, from the Ghetto Brothers. The Ghetto Brothers, a community organization dedicated to bridging the ever-increasing gap that exists between society and minority groups, believe music to be the common language of the world. Through music, they are able to inform society of the plight of the 'little people' in their quest for recognition. Therefore, the music of the Ghetto Brothers serves as a way of communication. 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 growth 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.”

Moving away from the politics and the admirable sentiments carried within the band’s message, the music itself was influenced by the brothers’ love of the Beach Boys, the Beatles and doo-wop. They started out covering Grand Funk Railroad songs, but soon developed their own style, which was closer to the teen-themed Latin pop of California, with sweet, harmonised melody underpinned by a funky as fuck Latino backbeat. Check out ‘You Say That You’re My Friend’ and try telling me that you don’t just want to break out into a joyous boogie! It’s like the Beatles have had a massive funk injection. The guitars really remind of the Los Hombres’ hit ‘Let It All Hang Out’. Some of the song construction is a bit naive – check the clumsy attempt at a Lennon/McCartney style middle-eight about a minute into the song - but according to Chang, ‘Power-Fuerza’ was recorded in one take, hence the raw, under-produced sound, which actually accentuates the enthusiasm and energy you can hear bursting from the record. The key themes are love and betrayal, as demonstrated by the slower ‘There Is Something In My Heart’, which is still infected with some pure bongo funk and a sweet bassline. ‘Mastica, Chupa Y Jala’ was another dance number, with Santana-inspired guitar heroics from David Silva. Only ‘Viva Puerto Rico Libre’ hinted at the band’s political stance, while the album closed with ‘Ghetto Brother Power’, a live favourite from the time the band played Bronx block parties, plugging their amps into lampposts and inviting all the other gangs along. Chang writes, “…(during) the band’s signature song ‘Ghetto Brothers Power’… they launched into a kind of blazing drum-and-conga breakdown that drove the Bronx kids crazy. The song climaxed with a promise: ‘We are gonna take you higher with Ghetto Brother power!’”

At the time (it is believed to have been recorded in 1972) the band signed a low-key deal for $500 with a small Latin label called Salsa International/Mary Lou Records. It didn’t shift many copies and failed to move that far from the Bronx, but it is a hugely important record in terms of how it reflects a move away from gangs and guns, to a celebration of being young and free. The Ghetto Brothers were instrumental in putting this back on the agenda, and their music deserves far more recognition. I was amazed at how easily I was able to track down a copy of ‘Power-Fuerza’. It just seemed so obscure, despite its obvious historical importance, but good ol’ Google and a passionate UK-based online world music distributor called, erm, Passion Music made it surprisingly accessible. I highly recommend any of you interested in the band to do the same – it’s a brilliant album.

I have hugely simplified the fascinating story of the Ghetto Brothers (and pinched all my facts from Chang), so if you have any interest in learning more, please buy Jeff Chang’s ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ as he devotes a large portion of the book to the gang and the band. You can buy a copy from Amazon.

Buy Ghetto Brothers ‘Power-Fuerza’ from Passion Music

Interviews with Benjamin Melendez and Carlos Suarez, both taken from the 'Can’t Stop Won’t Stop' website

Ghetto Brothers clip featuring Carlos ‘Karate Charlie’ Suarez, who is referred to as ‘Charlie Melendez’ by the narrator -