Monday, January 12, 2009

NY Rumba 101 Orchard Beach

In the 60's, there were three locations where one was almost always assured of finding some drumming going down. One was Central Park, which began at Bethesda Fountain and then moved over the hill West to it's present location past the bridge near the row boat lake. Then you had Marcus Garvey Park which back then was called Mount Morris. Located at 5th Ave. and 124th to 122nd Sts., the park had drummers playing there in the early 50's. Queen Latifah filmed one of her first videos at the park's highest point which looks out over the Harlem community. Then you had Orchard Beach. Known as the Bronx Riviera or Horse Shit beach depending upon your point of view, Robert Moses, the great city planner, created a beach where there had been none before. Opening in the mid 30's, Orchard Beach rapidly became one of the Bronx's favorite weekend retreats. It is very possible that I had been there prior to being born as my parents frequented the beach on a regular basis and I'm sure my mother went there while carrying moi. The beach was divided into 13 sections, each reflecting various cultural and racial identities. Section 9 had a picnic area just off of the boardwalk and I remember vividly those of Ukrainian heritage eating our foods and playing our music while dancing the folk dances from the "old country." Time went by, demographics changed and from this emerged a new paradigm of beach use. Sections 11-13 became White working class enclaves with Italians dominating population wise. Sections 5-11 were frequented by African Americans and a smattering of other folks. It was perhaps the most diverse part of the beach. Sections 1-4 became in essence, an extension of the Bronx and Manhattan's Puerto Rican community. It was here that the rumba was played and a tradition begun. By the time I was 14 (1963) I was practically living at Orchard. My crew would arrive on Friday after school and stay until Sunday evening...sleeping on the beach, living off of hot dogs and bacalaitos and consuming copious amounts of cannabis. It has been decades since anyone has been allowed to sleep on the beach at this point. The police put an end to it. Such was the reputation of section 1 that would be Latin Music stars such as King "El Solitario" Nando used the beach as a background for a photo for one of his hit albums. There were sure to be drums being played all day Saturday and Sunday. I learned several of the popular coros, "Tu ve yo no lloro tu ve," and "Ave Maria morena," among them so that I could participate. This was 7 years before I began to study the drum in earnest but the seed was firmly planted by these experiences. When not playing, there was plenty of mambo dancing going on. There would literally be 50 radios of various dimensions tuned to the same station, uniting into a cacophony of Bugalu, Cha Cha and Guaracha. The boardwalk was instantly converted to a ballroom as scores of dancers took to the floor.

There are those whose intolerance will not allow for the expression of a culture different then their own. Racism, the ignorance of which knows no bounds, reared it's ugly head on more then one occasion leading to the suppression of the drum several times. This was also the case in Central Park and the drummers of Marcus Garvey are now fighting for their right to express themselves free of the censorship some would impose upon them. The Mariel boat lift bred new life into the rumba scene and Orchard saw a resurgence of a waning tradition. The location has changed to a pathway leading from the parking lot to the boardwalk near section 5. Go on a Sunday about 3PM if you'd like to learn a coro or two and participate. Who may be inspired to pick up a drum.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Nice entry...Do you know if they still do rhumbas at the beach or at central park? I really want to participate in one. please let me know. my email is