Between the Beatles-led British Invasion of the US in the 1960s and the South Bronx gang wars of the 1970s, Ghetto Brothers was born—a gang inspired by the socialism of their native Puerto Rico, and a band inspired by the fab four.

Ghetto Brothers Power-Fuerza

Ghetto Brothers – Power-Fuerza

Release date: 1971

4 and half stars

 

The early 1970s Bronx was not a pleasant place to be, it was a time when joining a gang was almost mandatory, the local economy collapsed due to gang violence, and buildings burned. All-round good guys, the Ghetto Brothers had an ethos not of vengeance and violence, but peace, believing that "music is the common language of the world" (their own words from the sleeve notes of Power-Fuerza). This message became all the more significant when brother Black Benjy was murdered after offering a peace sign. 

Ghetto Brothers Gang
The Ghetto Brothers assembly, Benjy Melendez top right

This made their message more important, an ending to the regime of violence in the Bronx was urgent. Inspired by the socialism of their native Puerto Rico, and the work of the Black Panthers, the Ghetto Brothers' gang grew to be one of the biggest in New York—all founded on leader Benjy Melendez's determination.

Change really did start to happen. They ensured that the female members of the gang were treated respectfully—contrary to the treatment of women in other gangs. The gang would take hot chocolate to prostitutes in the winter and keep their pimps in line. Drug pushers were pushed out of the neighbourhood, in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Melendez recalls. “I’d tell them with diplomacy that we don’t want no drug-pushers in our neighbourhood. They knew it made sense to get out.” 

This culminated in December 1971, when 20 gangs gathered to agree on a borough-wide peace treaty. While the treaty didn't last very long, its legend did. But, what has all this got to do with music? In Melendez's words "without our peace treaty, a lot of the guys that started hip-hop wouldn’t have even been alive [by the time hip hop became popular]." Second, Ghetto Brothers were more than a gang, they were a group of talented musicians. 

Ghetto Brothers band practise

Ghetto Brothers at band practice

In the 1960s, the Bronx was much more pleasant. Melendez and his brothers had been dubbed "Los Junior Beatles" by the locals—no prizes for guessing, the boys would jam out Beatles hits, and they did it quite convincingly. 

“People would look up and be like, 'Yo, Junior Beatles, sing me that song “This Boy”!' So, we started to sing on the roof and this kid, Theo, was crying ’cause it reminded him of his girlfriend.” 

The girls on the block actually thought they were buying Melendez and his brothers' records and not the real Beatles.

The gang wars and violence of the 1970s brought a different backdrop. Against a setting of burning buildings and violence, Melendez and his brothers continued to jam out in their clubhouse and perform at community gigs. They played Beatles-inspired melodies, with a funky latin beat, and the neighbourhood adored it. Whether the music gained them the respect required to tackle the neighbourhood issues is not clear, but the Ghetto Brothers believed it did.

Benjy Melendez singing at a community gig
Benjy Melendez and the Ghetto Brothers singing at a community gig

A local record store and label owner offered the boys $500 to record an album. With only one day's access to the studio, the boys were under-prepared and many of the songs were recorded on the spot, improvising riffs and latin beats under a Beatles-style melody. The result is a little lo-fi, but it's a treasure trove of happy pop songs with a funky vibe.

 

The album itself went out of print, becoming mythical, and a highly sought after record. Fortunately, it was reissued in 2008 by Truth & Soul records. Although the album may not be well produced, it comes with such a fascinating history, incredibly charming songs, and an important message of peace. 

"This album contains a message; a message to the world, from the Ghetto Brothers.

"The Ghetto Brothers, a community orginaization 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.

"It 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." 

(Taken from the back of the sleeve).

Ghetto Brothers Power-fuerza back cover

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