Project reunites Casita Maria alums to celebrate a shared past
By Daniel Bejarano
In the 1950s and ’60s the streets of the South Bronx were brimming with music. The sound of conga drums reverberated between rooftops. Afro-Cuban and jazz rhythms merged with son, mambo and chachacha beats on stoops in Hunts Point, Longwood and Mott Haven to create a new music: salsa.
Renowned percussionists Benny Bonilla, Angel Rodriguez and Bobby Sanabria backed up for legends like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente.
Now many of the musicians who provided the neighborhood with its contagious backbeat are coming together to help launch The South Bronx Culture Trail at a place that served as a sanctuary for so many of them, the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education.
“First I practiced at a studio, then the streets and the cuchifritos [smaller venues,]” said Rodriguez.
For Bonilla, who played the congas on Pete Rodriguez’ hit song “I Like it Like That,” and performed with the father of Latin Boogaloo, Joe Cuba, as well as star singer and composer, Cheo Feliciano, Hunts Point was a cradle rich in musical education.
“All my neighbors became stars,” said Bonilla.
Bonilla and Rodriguez lived on Simpson St. in Longwood. Sanabria grew up in the Melrose Projects on Courtlandt Ave. Like many musicians of the era, they spent their afternoons at Casita Maria. It was a safe place for a kid from the South Bronx to hang out. They played stickball together and shared their love of music.
Now, in an effort to showcase the borough’s rich heritage, Casita Maria and Dancing in the Streets, an organization that honors the history of neighborhoods and public spaces through performances, are launching the Culture Trail. The project features a virtual and physical map of musical landmarks, culminating a two-year initiative that has encompassed the gathering, documenting and sharing of historical research and oral histories from the neighborhoods.
A series of concerts, walks, exhibits and other gatherings continues until 2013. An exhibit of 150 photographs by Hunts Point native Ricky Flores opened the series on April 26th.
Marta Rivera, Casita’s programs director, said that by bringing back Casita alumni and creating an archive of the South Bronx musical history, the new project cements a legacy.
“We want to attract tourism as well,” Rivera said. It is important to let people know that “the Bronx can be visited. This is a thriving community.”
The trail is also “celebrating the community that nurtured the music the Bronx helped create,” said Aviva Davidson, director of Dancing in the Streets. Local residents are encouraged to enhance the map, by adding places where Latin stars played, practiced and lived.
One such site was Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre headquarters at 972-976 Kelly Street: “A university for many important local musicians – Andy Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, Papo Vazquez, Steve Turré, Jimmy Bosch, Oscar Hernández, Willie Rodríguez,” according to Elena Martinez, producer of From Mambo to Hip Hop, a film on the South Bronx’s musical legacy.
Another site on the trail is P.S 52, in Longwood, which Rivera called, “a mecca for more than 60 musicians who used to practice there.”
The first phase of the Trail ends in October with a procession of musicians playing the plena, a traditional Puerto Rica drum, through Hunts Point and Longwood streets, where stoops and fire escapes will be transformed into scenes from the Bronx of the 1940s through 1970s.
The procession bridges the old and the new Bronx.
“If there’s no places like Casita, culture dies,” said Angel Rodriguez.