A global city needs a global soundtrack, and in New York, you can find nearly anything you want. Just pick a style, neighborhood or even a century: from Caribbean soca and jazz to traditional Chinese opera and hard-core Latino punk. Like great culture-blending port cities of the past, New York has welcomed and nurtured generations of musicians whose tunes sustain homesick immigrants and inspire young musicians to forge new sounds.
Afro-Cuban jazz was pioneered in the 1940s by Mario Bauza in Harlem. Boogaloo and salsa combined African American and Latin sounds that reflected life in the South Bronx in the 1960s. Music has provided a haven as newcomers navigate the city, even as gentrification sometimes endangers community performance spaces through rising rents or noise complaints from neighbors unaccustomed to music in the streets.
Still it thrives: in backyard punk parties with Latino headbangers and in Chinatown parks, where musicians serenade an older crowd with traditional melodies and pop compositions. Over the past several months, we followed several New York musical scenes that reflect the city’s creative soul, thriving in community centers, local bars and public parks.
The Afro-Cuban drums and chants echoing across Washington Avenue and East 163rd Street in the Bronx made Amara Marrero’s hips sway with joy. She grew up listening to her parents play this music, and it took just a few beats to work its way into her heart. “It feels like home, in Puerto Rico,” said Ms. Marrero, 31. “You can feel the spirit of it even if you don’t understand the language or the culture. I close my eyes and I’m transported.”
So, too, were the musicians, many of whom were first entranced by these African rhythms growing up in neighborhoods where rumbas — jam sessions — once beckoned from countless stoops and parks.
For Gene Golden, who was leading a pickup band of seasoned musicians, it was a return to his West Harlem roots, where the open-air soundtrack set him on a path to becoming an influential and sought-after session player and musical innovator who melded West Indian and Puerto Rican styles. “Growing up, it was all mixed,” recalled Mr. Golden, 81. “People were more relaxed, and we were in harmony.”
The drum gave Abe Rodriguez Jr. a direction in life the moment he heard it blaring from a Bronx record store. Friends introduced him to Totico, a revered drummer who took him under his wing and put him to work polishing instruments, while other musicians deepened his understanding of Afro-Cuban religious traditions.
“When I met my religious elders, the music went to a different level,” said Mr. Rodriguez, 66, who sang in the chorus behind Mr. Golden. “I thank God for the drum. It saved me.”
These days, musicians like Mr. Rodriguez who cut their chops in street jams feel an urgency to save the music from new threats of gentrification.
“When someone moves in, they start calling the police if they hear music that is outside of what they’re used to,” said Berta Jottar, a musicologist who has studied the city’s Cuban rumba scene. “The process of gentrification is like a silencing.”
But they intend to keep the beat going.
“When I play, I can feel what the people are feeling,” Mr. Golden said. “And I know they can feel part of what I’m feeling, partially. That’s communication. That’s the knowledge we have to refine if this world wants to continue.”
Among the dwindling West Indian pan yards in Brooklyn, Anthony Joseph mostly feels frustration as he keeps his steel drum band, Metro, busy. The pandemic forced some musicians to seek other opportunities. Now he has to relocate — again — to a lot on a dead-end Canarsie street, dipping into his life savings to pay five-figure fees to a landlord. The do-it-yourself spirit that once prevailed among bands is no match for big expenses and too little money.
“We had to fight just to get this space,” said Wilfred Kieal Jr., a teacher and longtime band member as he strolled around the pan drums arrayed under a canopy, gingerly stepping around puddles from an earlier shower. “The days of big bands are pretty much over.”
Steel drum bands today must contend with the challenges of dwindling practice spaces, teenage attention spans and depending on donations. “In the beginning it was more like a hobby thing for the originals who brought it to America and started passing along the traditions,” said Chris Mule, a musician friend of the group. “But to survive and keep the culture going, we can’t think of this as a hobby. We have to treat it as a business.”
Mr. Kieal offered pointers — the music is played by memory, not from sheet music — as a toddler picked up a mallet and hit a tiny steel drum. The sight of a new generation encouraged Mr. Joseph, who sees the band as preserving traditional culture in the modern city. And as the dying afternoon light reflected in the puddles of the Metro yard and a train rumbled past, the band practiced “Que Sera, Sera.”
Tucked between a street of two-family brick homes and Roosevelt Avenue’s international commercial strip in Elmhurst, Queens, a cramped, triangular club has become a cultural and political meeting space. On any night, the bill at Terraza 7 features musicians from Latin America and the Caribbean melding traditional music with jazz to an audience that is equally diverse.
“This is like an embassy for so many cultures,” said Sebastian Cruz, a composer and guitarist who had come to see Ceferina Banquez, the queen of bullerengue, a musical style traditional to Colombia and Panama.
“You know, the soil changes the flavor of the grape,” Mr. Cruz added. “Everything you get here makes you richer. I have musician friends from all sorts of countries, and I’ve learned from them. It’s not like a lesson. It becomes part of you.”
New York itself is as much a player as any musician, transforming traditional tunes into something new. It’s precisely that mix that guided Freddy Castiblanco over the 20 years since he opened the club, bringing neighbors and traditions together.
“I didn’t want to open up just some business,” he said. “I wanted community. While this is probably the world’s most diverse community, people were isolated.”
The music is just the beginning, as Terraza has become a hub for activists addressing immigrant and economic rights in New York as well as social and political conditions back in Colombia. “By appreciating each other’s cultures, we have educated people politically, showing the complexities of our immigrant cultures and how they enrich us,” Mr. Castiblanco said. “We can’t be so isolated that we can’t find common ground and act politically.”
Among the regulars is a group called Dock Sud, led by the Argentine vocalist Pablo Pereyra, who blends the tango of his youth with funk, techno and jazz. Mr. Pereyra used the pandemic lockdown to collaborate on new recordings with the group. Hardship wasn’t new to tango, he said, calling it “blue-collar music” that belies its sleek, sexy and upscale image here. “It talks of pain and poverty, and I can identify with that,” he said. “I liked traditional tango, but I wanted to find my own voice and sound.”
That impulse led him to reconsider his relationship to jazz, rock and even rap.
“Dr. Dre? He split open my head,” Mr. Pereyra said. “I discovered things it had in common with tango. It’s music from the trenches. It talks about the problems of the people who make the music.”
A high school trip to South Africa led Marlon Sobol back to his Jewish roots. He had gone there as an aspiring musician, eager to explore the rhythms of Soweto, where music united and sustained impoverished communities emerging from decades of apartheid. “They were smiling,” he recalled. “Back home in middle-class Long Island, they weren’t smiling as much. That’s where I got some idea of the essential joy of just being happy with what you have in the moment. Someone played a marimba, and everybody was dancing. It was just a holistic approach.”
The experience sparked a journey that led him to a Hasidic Shabbos service in Brooklyn, where he joined the men dancing around the bimah, the raised platform where the Torah is read. “It was what I was looking for,” said Mr. Sobol, who soon joined the Lubavitch community. “I got a bit of that feeling in Soweto, where everyone in the community was involved with the music. It felt right.”
Among the worlds within worlds of the city’s neighborhoods, he’s another restless soul looking to connect, to find a deeper meaning. Since his embrace of Judaism, he has divided his time among art therapy, percussion workshops and drumming gigs. The mood at an evening backyard concert, filled with casually dressed 20-somethings and a smattering of yarmulkes, was intimate, the crowd hushed as Levi Robin, a soulful singer-songwriter, went from a soft rendition of Neil Young’s “Ohio” to a song of spiritual yearning.
“We go about most of our day with interactions that have midlevel energy,” Mr. Sobol said. “But when we have a musical exchange, it’s already at a higher frequency emotionally, and we connect. That’s the greatest high.”
Pounding, screaming in-your-face punk music raged from a backyard filled with headbangers gyrating, jumping and singing in celebration. A petite tattooed vocalist belted out lyrics that were likely heard (if not necessarily understood) halfway across Brooklyn, while frenzied revelers danced on the ground and bobbed in a pool. A fire-breathing fan let out huge bursts of flames whose heat whooshed over the crowd.
In the middle of it all was Penelope Williams, a punk-rock den mother of sorts who found a salve for her unspeakable grief in this unlikeliest of scenes. Her son, Mateo, had been a beloved figure among the city’s punks of color. He was talented — as a musician and as a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering at Columbia. He was admired. He was now dead, surviving cancer only to die from heart failure in 2021. He was 28.
The people who embraced Mateo and his mother when they moved from Boston to New York in 2016 now consoled her.
“We found family beyond family,” she said of those early encounters. “I’m alone here, a single mom, and the first community that embraced us were the punks.”
That embrace steadied her following Mateo’s sudden death after successfully being treated for a rare cancer. “I didn’t pay for his wedding or honeymoon,” said Ms. Williams, a legal researcher who was recently laid off. “I spent money I didn’t have to bury him.”
The punk community still looks out for her and has been holding benefit concerts to buy a headstone for Mateo’s grave and to establish a foundation to help punks of color. “I didn’t want to just sit around and cry,” said Ms. Williams. “I wanted something transformative, to give back.”
A year after Mateo’s death, dozens of punks — pierced, tattooed and hyped — crammed into that Brooklyn backyard, where several bands played into the night. Ms. Williams chatted with friends, raising a beer in celebration of his memory, as well as his continued presence, wherever he may be. Fittingly, she invoked her son’s other love, science.
“The quantum theory of entanglement reminds us that when atoms that vibrate together are separated by space and time, they still vibrate together,” she told the crowd. “It vibrates for all space and time, wherever they go. The physical vessel is gone, but matter only transforms itself, it doesn’t destroy itself. That’s physics.”
With practiced, graceful moves that go back centuries, Margia Sriti danced across a modest stage at a Bangladeshi theater festival on Long Island. Her moves told the story of an “untouchable” woman who blamed God for her fate, even as her mother told her to accept it. An encounter with a thirsty monk — whom she initially felt unworthy to help — showed her their common humanity. It’s a message that resonated with some of the dancers at the festival, young people who are living in the cultural space between their parents’ world and their own.
“It’s relatable piece,” said Ms. Sriti, 28, “whether you’re talking about familial relations or societal hierarchies. These things still exist to this day.”
Her own family’s journey has guided her artistic efforts: For more than 15 years she has devoted herself to the Bangladesh Academy of Fine Arts, a storefront cultural center in the Bronx started by her parents, who were schoolteachers in Bangladesh before immigrating to New York in 1996. The center, which teaches the Bangla language, poetry, music and dance, has become a hub for the large Bangladeshi community in the Parkchester neighborhood. She said these traditional forms of music and dance are pillars of Bangladeshi culture and community, which helped her parents as they settled into a new life.
“In Bangladesh they were respected and had their own community,” said Ms. Sriti, who is also a therapist. “They were seen as a force for good, all those warm fuzzy feelings. They went from that collective society to here, where they were completely isolated. All they had were themselves and a baby.”
The few Bangladeshi families her family knew when they moved to the Bronx in 2000 have grown into a larger community, with a variety of stores, restaurants and mosques. What has not changed, she said, is her family’s mission to bring people together. “We provide hope, unity and that sense of collectivism they had left back home.”
She reconnected with that herself over the summer, when she traveled to Bangladesh to work with local cultural and dance groups, returning with a renewed energy for her work in the Bronx.
“We unknowingly ended up being caretakers of something centuries old,” she said
Almost every day, Ximing Liao heads to Columbus Park in Chinatown and plays the songs of his youth in China. The sun-dappled park — tucked between red brick tenements and the towering government offices to the south — has become a cultural haven for him and other musicians and singers of everything from Chinese opera to 1950s television theme songs.
“I never imagined I would be in America,” Mr. Liao, 78, said in Mandarin, “let alone be playing here.”
He learned to play his dragon-headed erhu — a two-stringed violin — in the late 1960s, he said, serving in a special group of Red Guards who performed music around China. Now retired from construction, he has probably been playing the longest of anyone in the park, showing up with his home health aide to play for locals and tourists alike. And while he has easy access to a thick sheaf of sheet music, it’s just a backstop.
“Here and there I might have to check a note,” said Mr. Liao, whose repertoire numbers more than 7,000 compositions. He pointed to his head. “But for the most part I got them all here in my computer.”
And in his heart, just like the other music lovers drawn to the park. They include an 80-year-old erhu player from Staten Island, an 86-year-old singer from Long Island and a 75-year-old who plays erhu, harmonica and three-stringed lute and takes the train from Harlem. The card and Chinese chess players provide an audience, as do small groups of tourists and other visitors from around the city. But the real audience, the musicians said are the “aunties and uncles” who live in Chinatown and come to reminisce.
“It makes it easier to pass the days,” said Meixian Chen, who sits among friends facing the musicians. “This is our enjoyment.”
The park is a hub of activity, including distinct musical ensembles that perform in two locations. Win Lin Guan, 82, and his wife host one group of musicians, providing the portable, rechargeable amplifiers, rosin for erhu bows and newspapers to cover the benches. They store instruments in their Chinatown apartment, making it easier for those who travel far.
Mr. Guan sometimes fills in for an erhu player between sets while his wife collects the tips.
“Even if no one is here,” Mr. Guan said, “we still play.”
One recent afternoon, Liyun Zhou — Mr. Liao’s home health aide — held a small microphone and sang along to “Wode Zuguo,” leaning over from behind the bench to follow along with the sheet music. Mr. Liao admits some of those who accompany his playing “sing high when they should sing low, or low when they should sing high.” But he praised Ms. Zhou.
“If you can play,” Mr. Liao said, “you can sing.”
And sometimes, surprisingly so.
Mei Ha arrived at the park one recent day, set her amplifier on high and launched into her ensemble’s regular repertoire — “Shanghai Tang,” “Ni Zenme Shou,” and “Tian Mimi” — songs from the 1970s and ’80s widely known among the Chinese diaspora. A man pushing a shopping cart of empty cans and bottles stopped before the musicians and then belted out the familiar lyrics — loud enough to drown out Ms. Ha’s amplifier as he waved his arms like a conductor.
“Thank you, everybody!” he shouted to applause. “Thank you!”