On Hip Hop as Folklore
Elena in Morris Park, the Bronx
Elena Martinez (she/her) is the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, a gallery and performance space which presents programs celebrating the Bronx’s musical and artistic legacy. She received MAs in Anthropology and Folklore from the University of Oregon and has been a Folklorist at City Lore since 1997 where she has curated exhibits, organized public programs, done research/fieldwork for Place Matters, coordinated the City Lore Documentary Institute, and continues to oversee the City Lore image archives. She co-produced the documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, which aired on PBS in September 2006 and won the NCLR’s (National Council of La Raza) 2007 ALMA Award for Best TV Documentary. She was a producer for the documentary, We Like It Like That: The Story of Latin Boogaloo, which premiered at the SXSW Festival in 2015. Elena has curated multiple exhibitions and her articles and reviews have been published in professional journals. She has won many awards, in particular for her work uplifting Puerto Rican culture. Photo credit: Francisco Molina Reyes II
To start, could you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about where you live?
Okay, my name is Elena Martinez and I live in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, which is a really interesting thing because I was actually born here but didn't realize the connection until I came back to New York City [as an adult]. My parents lived in this little basement apartment a few blocks from here when I was born and then, after a few years, we moved upstate to Duchess County. So I grew up upstate, but after grad school came back to New York City to work, not really realizing when I settled in this neighborhood that this was the same one that my parents had lived in and that I had been born in. And just another interesting aside, I work a couple neighborhoods away at the Bronx Music Heritage Center (BMHC) in what some people call Morrisania or what other people call Crotona Park East. And again not realizing, when I started working there, that my dad grew up in that neighborhood on Simpson Street, a few blocks away from BMHC. And my mom grew up on Freeman Street, which is up the hill from BMHC. So when I came back to the Bronx, it was sort of this homecoming, back to the origins, without my even really realizing it.
What a great story! So your familial roots are deep in this neighborhood. I’m curious if your experience here as an adult has been colored at all by your family’s experience, whether through conversations or visits since you’ve moved back.
Well, my family always talked about the neighborhoods where they were from. And actually a lot of people I grew up with, even when we moved upstate to Dutchess County, did. It's not too far from New York City, so there were a lot of transplanted New Yorkers there. Everyone always had stories; neighbors would get together and share them. There were always stories about the city -- about you on your own in the city or about when you got together with family who still lived there -- so it was never far away. It was never forgotten, it was always part of your family and your history. But I think all this sort of came together for me personally and also in the work that I do in 1999, when I started working on a project at City Lore. I'm a folklorist at City Lore, which is a nonprofit arts organization that uses folklore and the traditional culture to look at the aesthetic environment of New York City. Their motto is “folklore is the poetry of everyday life." We started doing this project of Place Matters looking at place -- where we were born and the places where we do things that really affect us and shape us and our stories. It’s really about how our places become repositories for stories.
Through Place Matters we did this project on Latin music in the Bronx. I was really excited [to work on it] being new at City Lore and from the Bronx. One of the first musicians I interviewed for the project was Benny Bonilla, a percussionist. He's been in many, many bands but he was most famous for being in a band called The Pete Rodriguez Band, who are known for their big hit I Like It Like That. For a generation from the 60s, everyone knows [the version of] I Like It Like That with Benny was playing the timbales. Most [younger] people know it today because Cardi B redid it, and actually I think it's on more commercials now and everything. But I interviewed Benny for this project, and I found out that he grew up on Simpson Street, a couple houses down from my dad and that he grew up with my dad's older brother. So it was sort of like… I'm working on this project about Puerto Ricans and Latin music in the Bronx historically as someone who's part Puerto Rican... so that has a personal connection to it... but then, I’m interviewing musicians and having this really personal connection where these people knew my family and grew up on the same street as my family. I'd remember those stories of my dad’s about Simpson Street and growing up there. And actually, in that time when Benny and my dad's family were growing up, it was still a very Jewish neighborhood and the Puerto Ricans were just starting to move in. So you have Puerto Rican and Jewish people living close together and there were all these stories about that. My family still remembers the Jewish pickle vendor that was on the same street as the Bronx Music Heritage Center. So it was the coming together of those two things -- there were these personal stories from my family but also these stories about Latin music history, which is a global music, but like my family knew some of those musicians and went to dance at their concerts at the local dance halls that were in that neighborhood, which brings me to the second personal piece. So that's why that project always had a lot of resonance for me.
The South Bronx Music Project became the From Mambo to Hip Hop documentary. It had different components, but it always had this personal side to it. I'm lucky that I get to do something that has a personal resonance for me as well as telling an interesting story in general about the Bronx and about the start of this genre of music. But for me, what other way to better be invested in something that has that connection to you.
Absolutely. It’s clear that your heritage has really shaped your experiences in these neighborhoods, both personally and in your work. It must be wonderful to be able to weave all those different pieces together. Going back a bit, I'm curious to know what brought you to City Lore originally?
I grew up and went to undergraduate school in upstate New York. But I went to graduate school in Oregon. I loved it there and I had an internship at the Folklife Center of the Smithsonian where I got to talk to different people and learn about different folklores. But I knew that I wanted to come back to New York City. To me, the soul of New York is so important… it's just an incredible dynamic place -- you know, incredible art, the dynamism of the city, it's creative! So I knew, New York City is where I want to go back. But I was like, what can I do as a folklorist there? Someone told me about City Lore, this place that was the leader in urban folklore. And with folklore, unfortunately, people have this idea or think of folklore as just like people quilting or doing pottery out in the countryside. And it is that, but it's more than that. It’s about people who work in communities and make communal art and have traditional cultural practices -- not just people who live in the country but people who live in a city as well. So that's something I wanted to really ground my work. So when someone told me about City Lore, I was able to get an internship there. Then when I finished grad school they had an opening so I was able to come back [full time].
You said that a lot of people think that folklore is solely based in traditional arts, like quilting or pottery, but it’s actually also found in urban environments and art forms. I appreciate that because it makes me realize how much folklore itself is placed-based and is particular not only to the people, their culture and the time period, but also the place where those people live, their local environment.
Yeah, well actually when [City Lore] started the project on Latin music, [From Mambo to Hip Hop] we were a bunch of folklorists, and a lot of our funding came through the folk arts funding sources. And so we were like, well how do we get funding [for this project] through our traditional sources? But we were able to shape the narrative -- like, when you think of mambo or hip hop, no one normally thinks of folklore because those are popular music forms. People can buy records and CDs, and they are just more popular forms of music. But we placed it into this narrative, into this context, looking at it through a folklore lens. Like, folklore is about folk art, about people sharing traditions within a community, whatever that community is -- it could be an ethnic community, a sub-cultural youth community, but some sort of community that shares some traditions, some values, and they somehow transmit those into an art form, whether storytelling, quilt-making, or dance, somehow they share that. And of course, people tend to think of folklore as the more rural sorts of things. But we were looking at young kids breakdancing [for the project]. Young kids have their own sort of sub cultural group. A bunch of young kids who live in these neighborhoods are getting together, putting cardboard down in the streets or on the sidewalk, and dancing. Who taught them that dancing? They didn't go to any school for that and there weren't family members or other adults teaching this. They would teach each other. And that's how that what we know as breakdancing, or b-boying and b-girling, was transmitted. Just amongst each other, sharing. So it was a cultural form with cultural values made within this group and passed along in a group. It was a really informal grassroots thing coming from people getting together and just making something amongst themselves without too much formalization or institutionalization. Whether it was the guys who were part of the Mambo era, playing congas together, learning to play drums from each other in the parks or on the rooftop... Or whether it was the young kids learning these different dance moves on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk... This was a form of folklore as well. I mean some people don't like to use that word [folklore] because they think it sounds hokey or corny, but to us as folklorists, it's a shared tradition that's passed down, that's transmitted to each other.
Sure! And to your point, I think all forms of hip hop -- breakdancing and graffiti as well as making beats and rapping -- can be seen through that lens of folklore. It's really interesting to think about the Bronx as such an ethnically and culturally diverse place and perhaps that diversity enabled new forms of urban folklore.
Hip hop, to me, is one of the greatest examples of how place definitely influences on a sound or an art form… I think hip hop just totally encapsulates what this is about because the Bronx, among other places, became a symbol of urban decay in the 70s. For various reasons, the Bronx becomes a symbol of the fires and destruction, and as this place where it's falling apart. These neighborhoods in the South Bronx, literally right where BMHC is, were being torn apart. East Morrisania, some parts of the Grand Concourse, some parts of Longwood -- these neighborhoods were really affected. You can look at old photos or watch that movie Decade of Fire. Just complete devastation of neighborhoods and loss of buildings. But then what you don't see or realize is that there were also losses of services. The city was closing firehouses down, it was going bankrupt so schools didn't have as much programming as they needed, especially music and art programming.
And yet, amongst all that, people were still living there! People were living through this, like, war zone. Young kids are growing up there. We talked about the guys who grew up in the mambo era, the generation before these kids. They had school bands, they had school art and music teachers, they learned to play piano or trumpet in a room in a school. But the kids in [what became] the hip hop era didn't have that; there were no music classes for them. And also, in the Bronx there used to be all these great theatres and dance halls, where you could go dancing and listen to live music. But that was gone too, because everything's burned down or places have closed. So all this live entertainment -- either the people who make it or where you go to see it -- are kind of gone. But people still have a need to create art, and to listen to music and to find beauty and entertainment, right? So you have these young kids who like music. They don't know how to play instruments, maybe they don't have access to those. But some of them become technical geniuses, like Grandmaster Flash was a technical genius and he starts making all these sounds on all these electronics. Him and [Grand Wizzard] Theodore start taking and making sounds on turntables, phonographs. Kool Herc started taking records and spinning them to make the break beat by taking the drum solo and and lengthening it so you have this like longer drumbeat for people to dance to, or you spin it backwards to scratch it and make different sounds. So they're creating new sounds from the impulse to create art. But that was only because they were in a neighborhood where there was no place left to go dancing, the school didn't have the music classes, so they just created on their own. They didn't have dance halls, so they took their speakers and their turntables to a local park or school yard and they set up there. And kids just started dancing, you know, just put down cardboard on the streets and start breakdancing to the music they hear the DJ playing. And in a sense, you could say graffiti comes out of this impulse again to create beauty and to create art. You know, you don't have canvases? Well, we'll show you canvases -- there are trains going by, huge canvases and moving canvases that we can create murals on and the whole city will see them.
So to me, people, in whatever environment they find themselves in, find a way to make innovation and create something. But they had to do it with what was there, you know, trains are canvases. No instruments so use turntables, no places to actually dance so dance in the parks, and you get your electricity from the streetlamp to make the sound. So the place totally shaped what the sort of instrumentation would look like, the sound, the colors and the canvases that they worked with. And what's even more amazing, I think, is that you're talking about all these kids who were like, 15 or 16 years old, really young. All the hip hop pioneers at the time were really young but that didn't stop them from creating this art form that has gone global, corporate, and is basically everywhere now.
It's so fascinating to think about the conditions that hip hop came out of in the Bronx, in that one specific place and time, in that decade or two. And it’s really interesting to think about folklore in this expansive way.
Before we go... I know that you have been involved in so many different communities and organizations in NYC. I would love to know what comes to mind when you think of favorite memories of community through any of those places?
One of the things I would say: I feel very lucky to work in a job where I get paid to just work with other artists. I get paid to create programs that hopefully other people enjoy -- music, art. And so I think I'm very lucky to work in a field like that. I think there's a lot of [memories] but one that I always remember is this one event we do every December called Parranda con Paranda.
Oh, I've been to it! It's great, just fantastic.
Well the reason we started - Bobby [Sanabria, co-director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center] and I are Puerto Rican, so a lot of the work that we do [at BMHC] focuses on the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in the Bronx. But I started working with the Garifuna community through some poetry programs at City Lore. The Garifuna community is large in the Bronx; it's an Afro-Latino community from Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. They're not known all the time; they sometimes are invisible almost because they're an Afro-Latino community but they speak the Garifuna language also, so people don't always understand who they are. The [Parranda con Paranda] event started because we were at this Garifuna concert at Hostos [Community College] and listening to their drums, Bobby was like, “That rhythm they're playing right now sounds just like our bomba holándes from Puerto Rico!” We realized that we have these similarities in the music and we're both big communities here in the Bronx, the Puerto Ricans and Garifuna. So that's why we started doing the Parranda con Paranda every year with community organizers. And then, sometimes for the events, we've expanded. We'd have like, a Dominican component of the concert too because they have a similar thing, or one time we had a Jamaican component because they had the similar masked dance tradition. It's nice because we always have a lot of musicians, and it's around the holidays too. By the end of the year everyone's just ready to sort of have fun, celebrate. I always call it a joyous event. You know, you don't use that word to describe just anything. You may say I had fun or had a good time, but this was actually joyous. And other musicians there told me that they look forward to this event every year because it's really joyous. And so, hopefully that's what we're doing. Hopefully that's the work that we're bringing from BMHC to the community, and hopefully we can continue doing that.
I actually lived near some Garifuna communities in southern Belize for a few years and just loved everything about the Garifuna culture, their music and language and food. So I was excited when I found out about BMHC’s Parranda con Paranda. And as somebody who attended one of the events, I can attest that it was a very joyous occasion! Because of the music, but also because of the joyous energy of everyone there, appreciating each other's traditions and then the coming together for a collaborative jam session at the end. Thanks so much for sharing and for all you do to amplify these traditions, Elena!
Questions for Reflection: What are the folk, or grassroots, cultures of your communities? Are there forms of folklore, present or past, that you haven't considered before?
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