Music Review: the Ghetto Brothers – Power-Fuerza

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Ghetto Brothers Power-Fuerza Re-issue Available Now at Truth & Soul Records

The story behind the Ghetto Brothers street gang and their legendary 1972 album Power-Fuerza, now widely available for the first time, is almost too incredible to believe. Founded by brothers Benjy, Robert, and Victor Melendez, the Ghetto Brothers was a unique kind of organization, part activist collective, part rock band, part youth gang that emerged in South Bronx in the mid-1960s. Rejecting the authoritarianism and drug culture common to other nearby clubs, the gang was more a socially-conscious refuge from the borough’s then-rapid social decay. Taking a cue from groups like the Black Panthers, the rapidly growing Ghetto Brothers helped organize free breakfast programs and clothing drives, and spoke out about issues like police brutality.

And amidst the increasingly violent turf wars and drug culture in postwar Bronx, the Ghetto Brothers emerged as a prominent voice for peace. By the early ’70s, the Brothers began hosting weekly block parties, in which rival gangs crossed hard-fought boundaries to enjoy live music together. In late 1971, they took it a step further, famously brokering the Hoe Avenue peace deal between rival Bronx gangs (including Afrika Bambaataa’s Black Spades) after the murder of Cornell Benjamin, one of their core members. Although the landmark agreement was short-lived (doomed, hip-hop historian Jeff Chang has argued, by divide-and-conquer NYPD tactics), it was also a dramatic recognition that the vision the Ghetto Brothers had for their community was a shared one.

Fascinating though this back-story is (its finer points are collected in extensive liner notes by famed hip-hop writer Jefferson “Chairman” Mao), the Ghetto Brothers have remained a kind of “holy grail” among collectors because of music, not politics. Although it’s merited comparisons to everything from Frankie Lymon to Sly Stone, Power-Fuerza undoubtedly creates a space all its own. Combining powerful Latin rhythms with funky, radiant lead guitar (heavy on the 7#9″Hendrix” chords), the record pulses with tight, infectious melodies and heartfelt lyrics that every once in a while drift into radical Puerto Rican nationalism.

At the same time, the album does little to hide the Melendez brothers’ childhood love for early Beatles harmonies (their gang was originally called Los Junior Beatles) and warm, slightly doo-wop-sounding love songs. And if the band’s artistic prowess and creative energy are hard to fathom, they’re eclipsed only by the fact that when Benjy sings “Got This Happy Feeling” about his pregnant girlfriend, he is singing both as a new father and a prominent South Bronx gang member. How the band managed to record the whole thing in just a day–their first day in a recording studio, no less–is, like so much else about the Ghetto Brothers’ story, almost unbelievable.

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