Born in the Bronx: Mambo and Hip-Hop

Tony Cox talks to Henry Chalfant, the producer of the new documentary From Mambo to Hip Hop, about the mambo dance craze and the birth of hip-hop in New York's South Bronx neighborhood.

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TONY COX, host:

New York photographer and filmmaker Henry Chalfant spent a lot of time in the Bronx during the 1980s. He was captured the city's graffiti culture just as it was taking off. Chalfant co-created the classic documentary Style Wars, which is still considered one of the most important films in hip-hop history.

A few years ago, Chalfant returned to the Bronx to work on his latest film project, From Mambo to Hip-Hop. The new documentary features music legends of the era describing how the music scenes in that borough shaped people's lives over the last 60 years.

(Soundbite of movie “From Mambo to Hip-Hop”)

Unidentified Man #1: You could take the most uneducated person from the mountains of Puerto Rico, (Spanish spoken), as we say. He comes to New York City in the ‘40s, goes to the Park Palace Ballroom on 110th Street and 5th Avenue, and the band that they heard was the Machito Orchestra.

In six months you see that same (Spanish spoken) and all of the sudden they're a New York hipster.

COX: I spoke with Chalfant about the film. He described a vital contribution of Latino immigrants to the history of mambo in the Bronx.

Mr. HENRY CHALFANT (Filmmaker): Some people came from Cuba and they were Afro-Cubans. And they couldn't find work in the bands that were playing, you know, the Latino bands that were playing, because they were black.

(Soundbite of movie "From Mambo to Hip-Hop")

Unidentified Man #2: Mario Bauza came from Havana and he was Afro, dark-skinned. And the band that he was allowed to be in - because in those days, let's face it, all the bands were all white or all Afro. There were no mixes at all. But he wanted to make a mambo band. He writes a letter home and tells his in-law: Come to New York, we're gonna make a band.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: Machito was first to declare the blackness of his band, Machito's Afro-Cubans. There was a sound that was like the Earth.

(Soundbite of man imitating music)

Unidentified Man #3: It was soulful and it was a link to Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la…

COX: Let's spring forward then to the 1970s, because that's sort of the era of the birth of hip-hop, is it not? And the Bronx once again is a place for, if not the birth, certainly the development of hip-hop music.

Mr. CHALFANT: Yeah, that's true. The interesting thing is in this same neighborhood, with a passage of 20 or 30 years between, these two different forms sprung up. I mean the Bronx was a very different place in the ‘70s. It was, you know, pretty much abandoned. You know, the blue collar jobs had dried up and the people, mainly Latinos and blacks who were living in the Bronx at that time, started to hang out in the streets and play music in the schoolyards.

And the whole DJ/turntable thing began to take off. Graffiti artists began to work - and breakdancing. There were breakdance crews all over the Bronx who would compete with one another. And I think the interesting thing about that is that it really, while it's not a mirror image of the ‘50s - in the 50s it was largely a teenager-driven movement and the dancers used to go around to all the clubs, be they in the Bronx or Manhattan, and compete with other groups. And you found the same thing happening amongst the breakdancers.

COX: Now we talked about the influence of the Latino culture with regard to the mambo. But when we're talking about hip-hop, there seems, from what I saw in the documentary and from what I know about the history of hip-hop, that there is really more of a mixture of cultures - African-American as well as Latino -who were part of this social upheaval in the Bronx that spilled out onto the streets in terms of breakdancing and into these abandoned buildings where you could go and have a party as long as you had somebody to spin and scratch, right?

Mr. CHALFANT: Yeah, that's right. And the music was basically funk music. You know, they got their parents' old records and cut them up on the turntable. And that was the basis of the music, the funky beats. And it was largely an African-American-inspired culture. And I always wondered what role the Puerto Rican kids played. Because when I first became aware of breakdancing, most of them by then were Puerto Ricans.

COX: So how did it come about? What happened to spread breakdancing from the African-American into the Puerto Rican community and beyond? How did that...

Mr. CHALFANT: Well, they lived, you know, they lived side-by-side. You know, previous to this there had been a gang era and people didn't get around so much because it was dangerous. You know, the kids didn't travel outside of their neighborhood so much. But largely thanks to people like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, who started holding jams and inviting people from all over and trying to establish peace in the communities, people began to come together.

(Soundbite of movie "From Mambo to Hip-Hop")

Unidentified Man #5: The earliest and first B-boys were black. When Latinos started breaking they were emulating what they saw, you know, the black people doing. What really added to the decline of B-boying in the black community, even in the hip-hop community, was that the girls weren't with it.

What are they gonna do while you spinning on the floor? How you gonna ask a girl to dance and then just flip and start, you know what I mean? So girls was like, y'all still into that hippity-hop. And then they, the girls, started going to the discos.

Disco is a party. It's theatrical. It's full-blown. It's dress up. It's put on shoes and a suit and get your girl, know what I mean? And you go and you dance together. You know, disco was just really too polished. You gotta understand hip-hop is the street's alternative to disco.

Unidentified Man #6: We were either gonna start hip-hop or start a revolution, man.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Henry, thank you very much.

Mr. CHALFANT: Thank you, Tony. Pleasure.

COX: That's Henry Chalfant talking about his new documentary, From Mambo to Hip-Hop. This film is part of Latino Public Broadcasting's Voices series airing on public television stations this fall.

(Soundbite of music)

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR NEWS and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Tony Cox. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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