In the second half of the 20th Century, the Bronx was the center of several cultural movements conceived by residents whose only escape from a crude reality was music and dancing.
While people in other boroughs were able to afford pleasant distractions from the city’s turmoil, Bronx residents, barely to afford a life with dignity, found music to be their therapy.
This was the case of Bobby Sanabria, a Bronx-born musician, whose upbringing in Melrose, south Bronx, exposed him to African, Latin and European music.
Bobby is a percussionist and a composer of jazz and Afro Cuban music, and his music has been nominated seven times for the Grammy Awards. He attributes the variety of sounds in his music to the heterogeneous atmosphere he was raised in.
In 1957, the year Bobby was born, the Bronx was comprised of Polish, Irish, Italian, German, and newly arrived African American and Puerto Rican immigrants. Bobby’s parents were born in Puerto Rico and belonged to this wave of newcomers.
They settled in the Melrose complex, which is located between East 158th Street and East 153th Street, and is comprised of 15 buildings, all of which are at least 14 stories high. Their apartment was on the 12th floor and from this vantage point Bobby had a comprehensive view of the neighborhood’s diverse demographic composition.
Morris Avenue was mainly Italian. A German meat market was on East 153rd Street. Kosher markets surrounded the Melrose complex, and it was common to see Puerto Ricans and African Americans hanging out in the streets.
Bobby recalls that some Puerto Ricans could have passed for European, as they still bore the physical complexity of their conquistadors. However, when they started blasting their music, a clear distinction between them and other residents arose.
Puerto Rican music has vigorous rhythms and loud drums. In contrast, traditional European music has soft and harmonious rhythms that bring the body and soul to a motionless state.
Most residents of European descent could not tolerate the loud drums of African and Latin music, and this caused clashes between the two cultures. As a 12-year-old boy, Bobby was often in the middle of these confrontations.
He remembers that it was common for European immigrants to use racial slurs to deride Puerto Ricans and African Americans, and every time he had to buy cheese from any of the Italian stores on Morris Avenue, he feared being attacked.
When his mother asked him to buy cheese, he tried to talk her out of that command, arguing that he was going to be assaulted by the Italians, but his mother never seemed too bothered by his concerns.
“If someone is going to attack you, you just need to grab a brick, an empty bottle or whatever is at hand, and fight back.” Mrs. Anita, Bobby’s mother, used to tell Bobby.
Her strength was forged by all the situations of discrimination that she, too, faced when she moved to New York, and these experiences shaped how she raised her son.
Mrs. Anita recalled one day on a bus when another woman hit her with an umbrella and yelled at her to go back to her country. This experience was damaging, and she encouraged Bobby him to stand up for himself, and to not let insults scar his attitude
This kind of cultural insensitivity also took place beyond the streets. One day, when Bobby was at school, the teacher asked students to read aloud during English class.
It was time for a German kid to read, and as he held his book in front of him, and took a deep breath to project his voice, a feeling of anxiety invaded him. A few desks away from him, Bobby could feel the uneasiness of that little boy.
When the German boy started reading, he stuttered and mispronounced every word. The teacher made fun of his accent, and criticised his inability to speak English with an American accent. At the same time, his classmates loudly laughed at him.
Bobby felt sorry for the boy, because he knew that his parents had just immigrated from Germany, and at home they spoke only German.
“It was brutal. You could sense hostility everywhere,” Bobby remembers.
Despite the prevalent hostility, Bobby also remembers neutral grounds where people wouldn’t insult at each other.
These were places and situations that made all residents, regardless of their race, realize their common traits: they all were working class families struggling to keep up with their day-to-day expenses, and they all had come to New York escaping scarcity.
The grocery store on East 155 and Courtland Avenue was one of these neutral grounds. When people couldn’t afford their groceries, they would feel vulnerable, and therefore less in a position to attack others who looked different from them.
Situations that triggered people’s physical and emotional needs lessened their aggressiveness, such as when males and females of different ethnicities felt attracted to each other.
When there was physical attraction, people entered in a seduction game where music played an important role. In the Melrose Playground, as Puerto Ricans and African Americans played their drums, all ethnicities blended in provocative dances. These gatherings with music became another neutral ground that discouraged racial segregation.
“You saw people on a bench playing congas, girls playing handball in the handball courts, African Americans playing basketball, Puerto Ricans playing baseball, others were playing chess, and kids were riding their bicycles.” Such was Bobby’s reminiscence of that time.
Music events had to be performed by versatile bands, that could adapt between playing Afro Caribbean music with fast jazz drums, as well as soft European ballads.
These dynamic sounds were etched into Bobby’s mind, and as he became one of the most renowned percussionists and composers of his time, he employed these elements in his music.
His personal experience with music made him the ideal candidate to be in charge of remaking the popular Broadway show West Side Story from 1957, where Italian- American and Puerto Rican gangs fought each other.
As such, the remake of this iconic Broadway show fuses progressive jazz, lyric opera, modern dance, and Latin rhythms, music that was authentic to the shared experiences reflective of the diverse environment that it was born of.