A cult favorite prized for decades by collectors, the Ghetto Brothers’ legendarily obscure 1972 latin rock album Power-Fuerza has finally gotten a proper release forty years after it was initially put out on vinyl by a South Bronx storefront label that soon abandoned the project. It’s a revealing look at the kind of rock that was coming out of the Puerto Rican community in New York in those days, part Beatles homage (to the extent that it sometimes sounds like a Puerto Rican Rutles), part surreal, swinging psychedelia. Fans of the current wave of revivalist latin rock and soul, from Spanglish Fly to Damian Quinones, should check this out. Frontman Benjy Melendez harmonizes with his brothers, bassist Victor and guitarist Robert over a swaying groove propelled by drummer Luis Bristol and timbalero Franky Valentin, lit up by David Silva’s searing lead guitar.
What’s amazing about this album, most of it a rather haphazard live studio recording, is how tight the band is. Which actually comes as no surprise considering that the Melendez brothers had been child stars on their home turf, playing Beatles covers as Los Junior Beatles, even opening for Tito Puente at one point. Much as the Fab Four harmonies and Beatles 65-style jangle are spot-on, it’s Silva’s guitar work that makes this album. He hits most of the songs fast and ferocious, firing off savagely bluesy leads, scorching flurries of chords and rapidfire funk along with the occasional nonchalantly slinky George Harrison-inflected interlude.
The album’s best song is Mastica, Chupa Y Jala, 1972 South Bronx slang for chasing a hit of acid with a puff of weed. Silva’s fuzztone lead contrasting with boomy percussion and an evil Santana-esque bass groove as it opens is choice, and it just gets better from there. They speed it up, then slow it down a little; the title becomes a mantra, followed by a bass-and-drums break and a long, sunbaked guitar solo to a neat trick ending. “Sabor boricua,” right on!!
Another standout track is the nationalist anthem Viva Puerto Rico Libre, with its six-chord Arthur Lee-style vamp, slinky clave groove and hypnotically perrcussive swirl up to a raw, aching Silva solo that unfortunately gets buried in the mix. Girl from the Mountain, by the band’s friend and colleague Felix Tollinchi of the Harvey Averne Barrio Band, strangely evokes the surrealism of late 60s/early 70s Peruvian chicha bands like Los Destellos, with yet another screaming Silva solo on the way out.
The rest of the album draws equally on the Beatles and James Brown, often in the same song. There Is Something in My Heart sets crystalline harmonies to a funk-tinged verse with busy, blippy bass, while You Say You Are My Friend takes a Blues Magoos-style garage rock riff and adds Beatles harmonies and a latin soul beat. I Saw a Tear is basically a soul song, while the two remaining tracks, Ghetto Brothers Power and Got This Happy Feeling (the latter ad-libbed in the studio) work funky vintage JBs-style vamps.
The backstory here is bittersweet. The Ghetto Brothers began as a family gang, albeit one dedicated to peace rather than the violence that plagued their neighborhood. Then as now, gang membership was sometimes a survival mechanism in New York’s more impoverished areas. Much as it’s fraught with knuckleheaded turf battles and senseless antagonism, it can also mean shelter, and security, and community in the face of destitution, eviction, homelessness and harrassment from the police. The Ghetto Brothers earned considerable neighborhood cred by holding a gang summit in an attempt to stop the violence, a gesture more admirable than it was successful.
Good as this band was, the Ghetto Brothers arguably never reached the popularity the Melendez brothers had achieved earlier in life – and by 1975, the original unit was finished, Benjy having moved out of the neighborhood while his brother Victor went on to form Nebulus, a reputedly much heavier acid rock project, with Silva. Sadly, Victor didn’t live to see this album reissued, having died in 1995 after a long battle with addiction. But Benjy and Robert would go on to lead another popular Beatles cover project and continue to play Ghetto Brothers songs in a new version of the band, with Benjy’s son Joshua on bass and Robert’s son Hiram on drums, in their new neighborhood just over the Westchester line in Mount Vernon.