There’s a postage stamp of urban sidewalk known by people of a certain age for having burned to the ground. A more recent generation know it as the place where hip hop was born. An older generation remembers the time that this turf produced a hot New York Latin music sound that came to be known as salsa. From Mambo to Hip Hop: A Bronx Tale is an hour-long documentary that tells a story about the creative life of the South Bronx, beginning with the Puerto Rican migration to the neighborhoods in the 1940s and ‘50, and the adoption of Cuban rhythms by musicians who created the New York salsa sound. It goes on to tell of the fires of the ‘70s that destroyed the neighborhood but not the creative spirit of its people, and then chronicles the rise of hip hop from the ashes. The film closes with reflections on the power of the neighborhood’s music to ensure the survival of several generations of its residents, and, in the process, take the world’s pop culture by storm.
From Mambo to Hip Hop features well known figures in salsa — Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, footage of Tito Puente and Machito, as well as key figures in hip hop including Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, and DJ Charlie Chase. Yet this is not a film about the stars but about a neighborhood, the South Bronx, a neighborhood that gave rise to and nurtured generations of artists (including the stars). The story captures an interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements in one of the world’s least likely places.
From the late 1940s through the 1960s the Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point areas of the South Bronx were, according to its residents, “a hotbed of Latin music.” Hundreds of Latino musicians grew up in or moved to this area from East Harlem or directly from Puerto Rico and Cuba. From the late 1950s to the early ‘70s, a deadly combination of factors – public and private disinvestment; official “urban renewal” and “planned shrinkage” policies; loss of small manufacturing to cheaper labor states; loss of live audiences to television; drugs and street gangs – had eroded the infrastructure and begun the decline of the South Bronx community. Ultimately, the result was what came to be known as “the burning of the Bronx.” But what stands out in this story is the resilience of this community and how music and dance–the thread that runs throughout its history–supported that resilience and helped the community rebuild.
During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds — even in the burnt out buildings that became their clubhouses. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and “scratch” records. A chronicle of both hip hop and salsa in the Bronx, the film shows how the mixing of African Americans and Latinos gave a crucial lift to the musical cultures of the South Bronx.