The South Bronx: A Legacy in Song
May 18, 2006 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Music from Morrisania: Dr. Mark Naison, urban historian at Fordham University and principal investigator of the Bronx African-American history project, leads a musical tour of one South Bronx neighborhood from the 1950s to the present, describing how hot summers, open windows and a fertile mixing of ethnic groups influenced landmarks in American musical history -- from Tito Puente to "Watermelon Man" to KRS-One.
posted by Miko (8 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Miko, another in a series of fantastic posts.
posted by Jofus at 9:48 AM on May 18, 2006

Wow. An incredible post (jonmc, come back! you'll love it!). I had no idea all those great musicians were from that part of the city, and that musical tour (first link), besides being packed with information, will rock your soul, from Tito Puente to "Sh-Boom" and "Love Is Strange" (I'd forgotten the Sylvia of Mickey and Sylvia went on to run Sugar Hill Records) to Mongo Santamaria and Grandmaster Flash and the mixed style of Aventura (Dominican blues + hiphop + r&b). I think, though, you probably meant to link to the associated NY Times article by Manny Fernandez as well:
One of the only ways anyone would know what went on here decades ago is by talking to the people who were there. That is what Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University, has been doing for the past three years. He has been talking to the patrons and musicians of Club 845, the Blue Morocco and other vanished nightclubs, and with their help he is piecing together the fragments of a vibrant but almost entirely unknown chapter of the city's musical past.
The third link was particularly gripping for me; as an anarchist suspicious of top-down organization, I loved this:
As I responded to these inquiries, I realized that what excited people the most was not that a scholar at a major university was interested in documenting their community, but that custodians of community traditions were guiding that process at every turn. To formalize this, we created a category of individuals called “Community Researchers” who not only recruited interviewees, but identified institutions, or cultural traditions in the community that merited more intensive investigation.

Within six months, we recruited a team of experts on community history from Morrisania, whose insights have transformed our understanding of Bronx African American History...
Many thanks for this, Miko.
posted by languagehat at 9:48 AM on May 18, 2006

I'm digging out my Fania Records CD's tonight. Snapper re-released them a few years back. (Full disclosure: I used to work for 'em.)
posted by Jofus at 9:55 AM on May 18, 2006

Thanks for linking to the NYT article, languagehat. I did want to include it, but wasn't sure how to link it for nonmembers of the NYT site.
posted by Miko at 10:01 AM on May 18, 2006

Oh, also, lh, recent scholarly practice of cultural documentation usually emphasizes the inclusion of community members in project design, collection, and dissemination. It was a long time coming, but it's now pretty standard, at least for large and well-funded projects such as this one.
posted by Miko at 10:04 AM on May 18, 2006

Now that is fantastic. And leads me to wonder what would have happened if this guy had used the same approach in his studies of the language of the Piraha tribe. Maybe they would have taken him aside after a month or so and said, "Come along now Mr Everett, our language *is* interesting, but not half as interesting as our ongoing construction of a cold-fusion reactor down by the stream."
posted by Jofus at 10:21 AM on May 18, 2006

the Pirahã don't appear to have a creation myth explaining existence. When asked, they simply reply: "Everything is the same, things always are." The mothers also don't tell their children fairy tales -- actually nobody tells any kind of stories. No one paints and there is no art.

That's one of the most amazing things I've ever read; here is a culture without the hallmarks of culture (story, belief system, memory, expressive work). It would be interesting to see what subsequent researchers find. It certainly is possible he missed the reactor.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on May 18, 2006

Thank you for posting this! I can't wait to post up on my deck in the sun this afternoon and crank up the ol' Powerbook speakers to listen to Dr. Naison's presentation.

My family moved to from a commune in Tennessee to the South Bronx in 1982, to take part in a project called the Plenty Ambulance Service. As you might expect, my 7-year-old white hippie-kid mind was completely blown.

I can attest that the soul-crushing poverty of the area was at times entirely offset by the soul-lifting music all around. Indeed, my best memories of our two years in the Morrisania neighborhood involve block parties and break dancing. (Alas, I had a hard time fitting in as a b-boy and never jumped off as a dancer or rapper despite my overabundant interest.) Summer evenings absolutely overflowed with joyful sounds of salsa, disco, hip-hop, reggae. To this day, I always follow the sound of an outdoor PA system to its source hoping to find a party like the ones I remember. (Here in Portland, the dearth of non-white folks means I'm more likely to find a jam band of some sort.)

Plenty Ambulance Service managed to pressure the NYC EMS into improving their 911 response time to the neighborhood, and Plenty refocused their efforts toward other missions around the world. My family moved to an Italian neighborhood near Pelham Parkway, and we never had a reason to go back to Morrisania.

A couple years ago, I visited the old neighborhood for the first time since my family moved to Oregon in 1990. In the 20 years since we lived there, things have certainly changed for the better. I knocked on the door of the old abandoned brownstone that our 20-strong group of hippies turned into the Plenty Ambulance headquarters, and was turned away by a kindly young woman who explained that it was now a women's shelter. Most of the burnt-out crackhouses seem to have been razed, and there were fewer bums standing around burning trash than I remember.

My Brooklyn-dwelling companions on the trip were salivating at the thought of renovating all the fine brownstones, which made me wonder how long the neighborhood will last before gentrification starts chipping away at its soul.
posted by danblaker at 10:39 AM on May 18, 2006

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