Ghetto Brothers: Guitars Over Guns

NPR | Nov. 28, 2012 2:15 p.m.

Contributed By:

Oliver Wang

The Ghetto Brothers were one of the many youth gangs that formed in the 1960s as economic woes and governmental neglect began to transform the South Bronx for the worse. Lead by Benjamin “Benjy” Melendez, the gang was originally, literally, him and his brothers. As kids, they had called themselves Los Junior Beatles and that Fab Four influence never left.

In 1971, Melendez and the Ghetto Brothers were pivotal in helping to broker a truce between various Bronx gangs. The Brothers channeled their formerly felonious energies into music instead. For their one and only album, called Power Fuerza, the Brothers drew on everything from Frankie Lymon’s streetlamp doo-wop to Santana‘s fuzzed-out Latin rock.

Power Fuerza documents a unique musical moment in early-1970s New York history. You can hear the lingering influence of rock ‘n’ roll, the height of funk’s impact and the burgeoning salsa era. The album also captures the era’s political shifts, especially with the rise of a Puerto Rican independence movement that swept through New York City’s uptown.

The peace treaty the Ghetto Brothers helped negotiate was pivotal in the eventual emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx, but the group’s musical career faded too quickly for them to have joined in. Power Fuerza dwelled in obscurity for decades. However, by the time some deep-pocketed Latin record collectors rediscovered it a generation later, drawn to its remarkable backstory and mix of sounds, it had become a collector’s item worth up to $1,000. With its reissue, Power Fuerzareturns to us as a time capsule of sorts, but its message hasn’t dulled with the intervening years: Choose guitars over guns and let music be your mayhem.

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