[21 January 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ghetto Brothers were a street gang before they were a band. Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez and his brothers Robert and Victor were from a Puerto Rican family who came to New York in the 1950s, and the boys got swept up in gang life in the tumultuous ‘60s in New York City. They did not escape the violence and crime completely, but they were a group committed to say, driving drug dealers from their neighborhood or cleaning up parks. They were, like so many gangs, targeted and harassed by the police, but for what seems now like the wrong reasons. Still, as harassment escalated, Benjy Melendez and his brothers—who had played music for a while, as a tribute band called Los Junior Beatles—turned from the street to music.
So yes, the Ghetto Brothers were a gang-turned-music-group, but it may not be quite the radical shift it’s made out to be in music lore. Their one record, Power Fuerza, recorded in a single session, is the only full-length document we have from the band. Released in 1972, it’s been a collector’s rarity for years, but now Truth & Soul has reissued the album in a deluxe edition, and given a wider audience a chance to dig into these sweet tunes.
And, for those with only a passing knowledge of the band’s back story, Power Fuerza will surprise because it isn’t about, necessarily, street-tough, revolution tunes. Instead, these are sweet songs, often love songs, steeped as much in early Beatles and ‘60s-pop as in Latin and soul influences. Aided by a band of crack players, Ghetto Brothers create lean yet lush pop tunes on Power Fuerza, a document that is brief (just over 30 minutes) but has a surprising breadth of sound.
The melodies here are pretty simple, but the effect less so. “Girl From the Mountain” starts with a simple note rundown that leads into a jangling chord progression that, were it not for the Latin shuffle of percussion behind him, could certainly be an early Lennon-McCartney tune. Benjy’s bass runs up and down over those chords, though, and sweet backing vocals build a basic pop song into something soaring. “There is Something In My Heart” is a more romping pop tune, a basic rock ‘n roll song tinged with the group vocals of, say, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (albeit in a lower register). “Mastica Chupa Y Jala” is a brilliant Latin dance number, a lean, fiery piece that makes Santana’s “Oye Como Va” sound downright bloated.
There are moments of political power, like the band’s dance number cum declaration of individual freedom “Ghetto Brothers Power” (which nicely borrows from James Brown) or the album’s longest song “Viva Puerto Rico Libre” (another songs that makes political the physical movement of dancing), but for the most part this is an album of lovelorn pop songs made by impressionable young music fans and talented players and songwriters in their own right. The deluxe edition, with extensive pictures and interviews and liner notes, gives us more insight and context into the creators of this album and the sounds that inform these songs. Still, it is as much back story and rarity that have made Power Fuerza the collector’s prize it is today, and in this reissue listeners are bound to realize that not only is this brief pop record unable to hold up all the history that’s been piled on it, it doesn’t need to. This is a sweet pop album by some altruistic, endlessly optimistic yet rebellious youths. In the tumultuous time and place they came from, that alone was a powerful and benevolent force. That power comes out in each note of this album, and that’s what’s worth focusing on here. Not where Ghetto Brothers came from, but where they wanted to go.