Graded on a Curve:
The Ghetto Brothers,
Power Fuerza

The story of the Ghetto Brothers is an inspiring one, though it’s also an account possessing the deep reality checks of disappointment and strife. It’s a tale of struggle, of growth, of the positive tendencies of human behavior, and naturally some fine music. The reissue of Power Fuerza by the Truth & Soul label makes the essence of a legendary group easily available for anyone desirous of hearing it, and in the process it transcends their legend to become one of the best of all possible things; a record that can be spun and enjoyed many times.

The rediscovery and easy availability of long sought-after musical documents reliably comes with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. It’s a ceremony partly directed to serious collectors, those individuals that have dedicated countless hours and energy in the pursuit of unearthing that rare and enticing artifact of delectably persuasive cultural marginalia, but it’s additionally aimed at listeners possessing a sincere interest in the contents of those recordings if little of the often rabid intensity (and substantial moolah) that’s required to actually procure original copies of these frustratingly elusive objects.

Occasionally these records are so rare they are essentially considered “lost,” indeed so obscure that even the most hardcore of collectors can’t get their hands on a copy, and in these instances the accompanying promotional verbosity can rise to the level of full-blown lather. The reason why almost always boils down to extreme (and at times overblown) passions on the part of those doing the reissuing, or less attractively the understanding from the participants that the music is, well, ultimately not all that great, the ensuing hyperbole aimed at increasing record sales, with honesty getting cast aside amongst the hoopla.

But every record has a story and it’s often in these narratives that the impulse to reissue once obscure or lost records endures as an honorable one. To elaborate, while there is certainly a well-established if somewhat malleable canon that helps to define the still young history of musical recording, it can be just as interesting to explore the sounds that time has either dismissed or made the stuff of legend, and doing so helps to form a clearer picture of the whole impulse of creating and receiving music. If the canon is the bricks of the foundation, then the forgotten, the elusive, and the mythical is the mortar that holds that structure together.

And sometimes rare or lost records simply offer truly revelatory total packages that somehow, frequently via bad business practices or just plain tough luck, never got their just due. These rediscoveries don’t get hyped. They instead get justly celebrated as second chances and fresh opportunities. Take for example Power Fuerza by Ghetto Brothers.

On one hand, it’s an LP that on a purely musical level is largely shaped by the pop and rock music of its time, though it delivers via its eight songs a fascinating and unselfconsciously unique blend of influences. On the other hand, the story behind the album’s contents lends it a vitality that greatly increases its sonic value.

It’s the story of six kids combining forces to record an album that quickly vanished due to non-promotion, its initial impact registering only slightly on a local level. But that locale was the Bronx, and the kids were members of a Puerto Rican street gang that felt the need to channel their energies into something far more positive. Along the way, the righteous course of the Ghetto Brothers’ example impacted a young man soon to be known as Afrika Bambaataa, inspiring him to eventually form the Zulu Nation. In the process the Ghetto Brothers became a crucial part of hip-hop lore.

But the music found on the Ghetto Brothers’ sole LP, released in 1971 by the tiny Salsa label, a venture that was funded by a local music store Mary Lou Records, is far from proto-rap, instead containing elements of Latin-rock ala Santana, James Brownian funk, vocal group-informed R&B action, and most strikingly the lean pop-rock of the pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles. Indeed, one of the most interesting elements in their story concerns how prior to their membership in the Ghetto Brothers gang, core participants Benjy, Robert, and Victor Melendez took part in a locally popular Fab Four-tribute group Los Junior Beatles, going so far as playing a gig with Salsa legend Tito Puente.

Those Beatles influences are quickly apparent on Power Fuerza’s opening cut, “Girl from the Mountain.” But what’s most interesting is how that influence is integrated into a slice of guitar-based pop-rock that’s far more than just structurally sound, the tune featuring much funkiness courtesy of Robert Melendez’s rhythm guitar and the bongos/congas of Angelo Garcia and Chiqui Concepcion (neither participant an actual member of the Ghetto Brothers, their services specifically tapped to enhance this recording).

But it also holds some fine vocal harmonizing from Benjy and Victor, the singers expressing those Beatles elements in a manner that’s considerably advanced (the notes mention the Everly Brothers, and upon hearing, yes that’s true) and personal, not a knock-off in the mode of The Knickerbockers’ “Lies” (and yes, “Lies” is an exquisite song, but I’m trying to make a point here).

What’s for sure is that if “Girl from the Mountain” was spun in the presence of some garage-rock craving record hound and told it was from a comp called Latin Nuggets, they’d perk right the hell up with intense desire. And when David Silva’s wickedly fuzzed-out guitar solo emerged, you’d surely need a sponge to soak up all the drool. Furthermore, while the song is quite sunny in musical disposition, its lyrics present a tougher affair, one of potential heartbreak.

This upbeat/downtrodden combo continues on “There is Something in My Heart,” a song that ups The Beatles quotient into one of those splendid sha-la-la ditties that detail emotional pain, an experience that everyone can easily relate to. Outside of the hand drums, the tune sounds like it came directly from 1965; that it was recorded roughly six years later is quite a twist, establishing how influences can endure in unexpected places and to grand results. “Got This Happy Feeling” changes the direction however, being a spirited bit of funky-rock, halfway between an up-tempo R&B smoker and early Santana.

“Mastica Chupa y Jala” continues that vibe, a deep Latin-groover modeled upon Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and with guitar reminiscent of both Carlos and the psyche-leaning garage fuzz that can be found on records by such fleeting entities as The Blues Magoos. Unsurprisingly, the song is about drugs, the title translating to “chew the pill, pull the weed.” And along with the funky flavor provided by the guest percussionists, it’s also a showcase for drummer Luis Bristo and timbales player Franky Valentin.

From there “You Say You Are My Friend” combines the Ghetto Brothers pop-rock and Latin funk sides to superb effect. On a musical level it’s sorta comparable to The Hombre’s “Let it Out (Let it all Hang Out),” though it’s more legitimately funky in conception, and it reinforces that these guys could execute their ideas on a very high level. If Power Fuerza only sold locally in its original pressing, it was in no way a vanity pressing.

“Viva Puerto Rico Libre” opens with some spoken words in Spanish from Benjy Melendez concerning the subject of Puerto Rican empowerment, and he continues to sing in that language throughout the song’s many shifts. This move toward topicality underscores both the ambition of the Ghetto Brothers and their commitment to community, and it’s pretty clear that outside of whatever commercial hopes the group shared, they mostly desired for Power Fuerza to be played and enjoyed in the neighborhoods they called home.

“I Saw a Tear” is basically vocal group-inspired R&B with solid instrumental accompaniment, Victor singing lead and the group playing with confidence, the entire tune strong enough that it saw release as a single. It’s B-side, Power Fuerza’s closing’s cut “Ghetto Brothers Power” sounds like a bunch of music loving guys attempting to fuse the beauty of prime Sly Stone into the sweaty oomph of Mitch Ryder; which is to say it sounds fantastic, particularly during Silva’s concise bit of soloing.

With all the songs accounted for, the album’s main fault lies in the production, its recording quality getting the job done well enough but at times lacking punch. It’s not a big issue though, especially considering that all eight tracks were laid down in a day. While over too quickly, the LP ultimately shapes up as a minor classic.

The Ghetto Brothers crowning achievement was once the stuff of stories so good that when separated from the sounds of their achievement they could seem almost too good to be true. After listening numerous times, the reality of those stories has sunk in, but they haven’t lost a bit of their luster, and that’s an occurrence as rare as an original, clean-playing copy of Power Fuerza.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A- 

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