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Revenge of the music nerd


Frantic Ian describes himself as "Bob Dylan with balls." Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

By 6:30 on a Friday night in October, hundreds of fans waited anxiously for Frantic Ian to take the stage at the First Lutheran in Throgs Neck.

Ten minutes later,  the bespectacled guitarist lit into his first full punk folk melody with irony-laced lyrics, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt with a rooster on it that said, “chicks dig me.” As the last note faded away he yelled out, “Sines and cosines, baby!” The crowd went wild.

Ian Rousso, 24, as he’s known off stage, is an average 20-something on a mission to have fun and learn everything he can about biology—and perhaps women, too. He has made the Bronx his adopted musical home and the borough has adopted him right back. Hundreds of fans sing along every time he plays a show with Bronx Underground, a grassroots production company.

Rousso looks like Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, but sings like a more melodic Bob Dylan—artfully and musically tone deaf. He calls himself “Bob Dylan with balls,” and said he “writes songs that are serious yet somewhat sarcastic.” Rousso said he loves his solo career because of the opportunities it allows. “It’s gratifying playing something you wrote on your own,” he said. “There’s no one to answer to except the fans.”

He released his first album as a free Internet download on Nov. 8 and said that he owes a lot of his success to Bronx Underground, a group dedicated to providing venues and audiences for local musicians.

Frantic Ian blows into a noise maker while celebrating Bronx Underground's 10th birthday. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Frantic Ian blows into a noise maker while celebrating Bronx Underground's 10th birthday. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

“Seriously, from the bottom of my heart, I can’t tell you what it means to me that Bronx Underground considered my contribution to the scene relevant enough to have me play their 10th anniversary show,” he said at his gig Oct. 8 on the Throgs Neck stage. “I can’t tell you what it means to me to have been a part of this scene for so long.”

He joked that he’s probably going to be playing at Bronx Underground’s 20th anniversary show as well.

“How to Detonate an Atomic Bomb” released to much fan fare. So far over 100 people have downloaded it, a success for a self-produced and marketed album. It was originally titled “How to Disassemble an Atomic Bomb” until he realized that it was too similar to U2’s 2004 album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”

“Bono’s always trying to cramp my style,” Rousso said of the mix-up.

The antithesis of a rock star, Rousso is a junior biology major at the City College of New York and he’s very focused on school. A majority of his posts on Twitter and Facebook concern studying for biology and chemistry exams with a few pleas peppered in to download his new album, “How to Detonate an Atomic Bomb.”

“Music is mainly a hobby,” Rousso said. “Right now, school is my number one priority.”

Despite his focus on academics, the Upper West Side native has made a name for himself in the Bronx music community. He’s been in and out of Bronx-based bands for six years. Most recently, he performed with a band called Frantic Zero which eventually became part of Rousso’s solo identity when he left about a year ago. It’s a fitting name, considering he speaks in rapid-fire, like he’s trying to cover all his conversational bases at once.

When performing, Rousso owns the stage and commands attention, especially when powering through a “Sublime” medley, a 90s group popular long before most kids in the Bronx Underground audience were babies.

Part of Rousso’s appeal is that he sings for not only himself but for his audience. His songs chronicle what it’s like not to feel particularly “cool,” but to be relatively O.K. with it. His song “Get This Right” is about being young, having no real direction but hoping that things will work out. He sings about getting lost in his thoughts to his favorite band while on his way to a record store.

Fans find it hard not to dance while Frantic Ian is performing. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans find it hard not to dance while Frantic Ian is performing. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

“Thought about the world that we live in and all the things we want to change,” he sings. “Remembered the songs that pushed us through reminded us how we should do it. I hope I get this right.”

Rousso combines Bob Dylan harmonica melodies with Dashboard Confessional personalized lyrics and a Ben Folds-type vocal artistry that’s not particularly impressive but sucks you in with its raw honesty. He’s not trying to impress, he’s trying to express.

“How to Detonate an Atomic Bomb” is similar but instead of lacking direction he laments his lack of success with females. On “Journey to the End of the Horizon” he sings “like a little boy who’s walking on his first stepping stone” to detail how new relationships make you feel like you know nothing even if you’ve been down the road before.

The new album also offers a hilarious and melodic cover of “Bed Intruder” the autotuned spoof of the viral video “Hide Ya Kids, Hide Ya Wife” which shows Antoine Dobson who ranting to television reporters after a intruder climbed through his sister’s window late at night.

Rousso’s fan base has grown because he’s down to earth and fun to watch, plus he offers acoustic jam band-like performances to a scene largely dominated by electric guitars and jacked up amplifiers. Also, he loves his fans.

“Frantic Ian is awesome, he does really great acoustic sets in the city, said John Blattner, 17, of Throgs Neck. “As soon as I walked into the show the other day he pointed me out and dedicated a whole set of Sublime songs to me. Great time.”

Rousso’s influences include many Bronx-based bands including “A Moment’s Worth” and “Drew Torres” as well as “Jawbreaker”, a New York City band that’s often credited with influencing and starting the early 90s emo music movement which featured song lyrics heavy on personal emotions, often sad and slow.

On Nov. 29 Rousso will be performing and celebrating his album’s release at Angels and Kings, an East Village concert venue, which often features local talent. The show starts at 6 p.m. and is free.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Culture0 Comments

A Throgs Neck baker turns her dream into a sweet business

Fourth of July blue velvet cupcakes with handmade gum paste flowers. Photo provided by Cammarota

Fourth of July blue velvet cupcakes with handmade gum paste flowers. Photo provided by Cammarota

The fall of 2009 was a season of highs and lows for Robin Cammarota. She was in love, engaged to be married and ready to start her very own baking business with the support of her fiancé, John Costello.

The couple brainstormed all summer for the perfect name to reflect the tasty creativity that went into her confections, which often contained flavor combinations like chocolate and avocado and ancho chili chocolate as well as fun shapes and characters like pandas, the cast of Sesame Street, and cupcakes with witch fingers coming out of the top for Halloween.

Cammarota says Costello urged her to take her baking from a hobby to a home business. By August, the pair had finally come up with a name for her burgeoning baking business, Land of Cake Believe. But just as Cammarota began to seriously market herself and her business, everything came crashing down.

A month after they decided on the name, Costello died suddenly of heart problems at the age of 25.

Cammarota and Costello in 2009. Photo provided by Cammarota

Cammarota and Costello in 2009. Photo provided by Cammarota

“It felt like my world ended,” Cammarota, 27, said of Costello’s sudden death. “After a loss like that, it’s hard to continue.” Getting back in the kitchen after Costello’s death was particularly difficult because he was such a big supporter of her dream.

But she finally did in early spring, and now her self-propelled baking business is a staple of the Throgs Neck community. She works from her home kitchen and earns profits of between $300 and $400 a month by charging $2 per cupcake and $3 to $5 per slice of cake at events. Bigger orders are billed individually.

Cammarota didn’t always take baking so seriously, but she always loved it. She grew up in Throgs Neck baking with her grandmother for every holiday. “My grandmother taught me the importance of patience when baking,” she said. “And that a birthday is not a birthday without a cake.”

When her grandmother died, Cammarota took those recipes and made them her own. They form the basis for all of her Land of Cake Believe creations, including her first foray into creative flavors: a sickeningly sweet Pez flavored cake she made while a freshman in high school at St. Catherine Academy in 1997.

Knitting basket cake. Photo provided by Cammarota

Knitting basket cake. Photo provided by Cammarota

“None of my friends will let me live that down,” Cammarota said. She bakes in a rose-and-skull pattern apron that mirrors her sweet yet daring flavor combinations.

When she got back in the kitchen after Costello’s death, Cammarota came up with her most innovative confections; peanut butter, Dr. Pepper, Killian’s Irish Red, and Blue Moon Orange are all cupcake flavors. She has even recently created apple and pumpkin cupcakes with caramel cream cheese frosting for the fall season. Cammarota likes to bake with seasonal ingredients that she finds at farmer’s markets and ethnic markets, baking by the motto that “fresh is best.”

“Once I have a good ground recipe, I can build upon it,” Cammarota said. “I have the tendency of just adding a random spice into a recipe I’ve been doing forever.” For instance, she recently played around with a sacher torte recipe. Sacher tortes are a traditional dessert in Vienna—a chocolate cake with apricot filling and a chocolate glaze. She decided to spice this classic up with ancho chili powder, a spicy pepper that complements the sweetness of the chocolate, and call it a Mexicanisher Sacher Torte.

She attributes her success and drive to Costello. Her drive now is to make him proud.

Cammarota and Costello met when they were 14 or 15 years old (“Neither of us could remember exactly when,” she said) and had been in and out of each other’s lives for years. At a rock concert hosted by grassroots production company Bronx Underground in early 2009, Cammarota brought double chocolate, vanilla-frosted cupcakes for the event staff to share and she brought one over to Costello.

“He had three by the end of the night and I left telling my friends, ‘I really like John’,” Cammarota said. “A few weeks later he asked me out and that was it.”

Cammarota in her kitchen. Photo provided by Cammarota

Cammarota in her kitchen. Photo provided by Cammarota

Costello often helped her set up at Bronx Underground shows. “He liked to make sure my product was well-represented,” Cammarota said.

Despite her love of baking, it took Cammarota until the spring of 2007 to enroll at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in the Pastry and Baking Arts Program to really hone her baking skills. Cammarota calls herself a “perpetual student.” She already had a bachelor’s degree in German language and literature from Hunter College as well as a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Mercy College. She had held various jobs in the restaurant industry and was working as a college admissions counselor when she decided to focus on her baking.

Sesame Street cupcakes. Photo provided by Cammarota

Sesame Street cupcakes. Photo provided by Cammarota

“I realized I wasn’t as fulfilled with life as I should have been,” Cammarota said. She was “hooked” after making her first grooms cake in the summer of 2009. “I realized I had really found my passion,” she said.

She even uses her knowledge of the German language to make her baked goods different than anyone else’s. “ I translate recipes from German cookbooks and magazines,” Cammarota said. “It sets me apart from most other bakers.”

Word spread from person to person and friend to friend, particularly after she started selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground rock concerts last May. She had previously worked with the concert promoters.

“I made six dozen cupcakes and managed to sell all but three,” Cammarota said of the first Bronx Underground show. “A few weeks later was another show and I was asked if I could be there. A bit more sensible this time, I only made four dozen and sold out.”

She spent 15 hours making Bronx Underground’s “birthday cake” to celebrate the organization’s 10th anniversary. When she has really big orders, she takes up every inch of space in her small home kitchen. “Home kitchens aren’t made to make cakes big enough for 150 people,” she said. “But I make it work.” She’s thankful that her kitchen opens up into her dining area giving her more counter space for big orders and for flavor experimenting.

Cammarota and her Bronx Underground birthday cake. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Cammarota and her Bronx Underground birthday cake. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Cammarota said she hasn’t repeated a flavor at the shows yet and the concert-goers are more than happy to try them. “You don’t find a single one of these cupcakes wasted,” said James Beary, 24, a regular Bronx Underground attendee. “You never even find a single crumb on the ground. They’re that good.” Fans lined up for Cammarota’s cake at a recent Bronx Underground show, forgoing a spot in front of the stage for a place in the cupcake line.

From Bronx Underground’s exposure, her business took off (she has 704 fans on Facebook). “My orders come in waves,” Cammarota said. “I have some weeks where I’m literally working everyday and then I have other weeks when I have one. I like to bake everyday regardless of whether I have an order just to try out a new recipe. My friends and family both love and hate me for this.”

Apple and pumpkin cupcakes for fall. Photo provided by Cammarota

Apple and pumpkin cupcakes for fall. Photo provided by Cammarota

In addition to her cakes and cupcakes, Cammarota also makes breads and other pastries. She said she wanted to be a bread baker because “there’s something wonderful about kneading dough. I love making breads but people don’t typically ask for birthday breads.”

One day Cammarota hopes to open her own store. In the meantime, she still works full-time for a non-profit group as a research grant coordinator. To keep up with her current demand, she has recently enlisted the help of her best friend, Danielle Provino.

“She has helped on a few of the bigger orders,” Cammarota said.  “She is typically right by my side selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground shows. She is also my soundboard for design ideas. We work well together.” The teenagers at the Bronx Underground shows often ask Cammarota if she needs an intern. “Not right now,” she said. “But maybe one day soon, I will.”

Though her business is growing and she’s doing it largely by herself, Costello is always on her mind and drives her to be her best. “I bake for me and I bake to make John proud,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Food, Food and Beyond, Special Reports0 Comments

Polling snafus persist for some Bronx voters

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Adam King, a poll worker at P.S. 123 in Melrose, waits outside to welcome voters. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Tiny font, scanner problems, and privacy complaints topped the list of Bronx voter-reported gripes during Tuesday’s general election.

Voters said the new electronic scanners caused less confusion this time compared to the chaos of September’s primary, but they were still far from perfect.

Soundview seniors complained that they couldn’t read the small type, while Mott Haven voters said the ballots were too big for the scanners.  Still other voters in Fordham were put off when asked to hand their ballots to poll workers prior to placing them in the scanners, potentially compromising their privacy.

“I thought the older version was better,” Sharon Walker, 47, of Highbridge, said of the new ballots, expressing a concern shared by many who hoped they had left ballot-related confusion behind in the primary.  “There’s too many steps.  The words on the paper were too small.  The workers seemed lost too, they weren’t very helpful.”

The 2010 election marks New York State’s debut for the electronic paper ballots, replacing the old lever polling booths.  The new method was designed to streamline voting and increase efficiency in tallying results.

However, the new machines faced so much criticism in September that Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the primary “a royal screw-up.”  The city received numerous complaints about the ballot’s typeface, confusing instructions, and non-working scanners. When the Board of Elections failed to sufficiently address the problems in time for the general election, Bloomberg took action last week, firing Board of Elections chief George Gonzalez.

“Mr. Gonzalez screwed up!” said City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell who represents portions of the north Bronx.  Of the firing, he added “It’s probably a good thing.”

Even with the firing at the top, there were fewer complaints on Tuesday than on primary day, according to Marjorie Lindblom, a lawyer working with the Election Protection Committee, a group that fields complaint calls.

Still, a smattering of on-site snafus made for a challenging general election day in the Bronx and across the city. The election committee reported a number of issues ranging from broken polling machines to unprepared workers from Brooklyn, the Upper East Side and into the Bronx.  The Bronx Ink conducted exit interviews at 29 sites throughout the borough, and participants at a majority of them reported system-related problems.

The most common complaint was that the paper ballot was difficult to read.  “I don’t think the forms were user friendly,” said Courtney Foster, 42, of Norwood.  “And I didn’t see anyone there to help you.”  Donald Lundy, 65, also of Norwood, said the layout of the ballot was “a bit too congested.”

The next step – walking the paper ballots over to an electronic scanner –  was not a voter favorite.  “I thought the voting machines stunk,” griped Ruth Lentz of Riverdale.  Lentz, who is 89, who has never missed an election, lamented the loss of the lever system.

In some neighborhoods, voters had to wait for workers to deal with glitches. In Mott Haven, one of the two polling machines at the Carmen Parsons Senior Center did not work until 7 a.m.  Problems persisted later in the day when some ballots were not cut properly and did not fit in the scanners.  “The first form that they gave me, it was bigger than the space,” she Maria Pena, 32, of Melrose.  Pena had to toss out her first ballot and fill in a second.

Voters also lamented the new lost privacy.  In the old lever system, voters cast their ballots in a curtain-enclosed booth. In the electronic system, voters hand their paper ballot to a worker to scan.  “Some people thought maybe workers were looking at their ballots while they scanned them,” Lindblom said.

“It’s not private enough,” said Perneter McClary, 64, of Fordham, who missed the old booths.  “Before, the curtains guarded you and you were alone.”

In addition, in neighborhoods such as Highbridge and Williamsbridge, lines of residents snaked outside polling sites.  Also in Williamsbridge, the polling site at P.S. 78 opened 20 minutes late because security guards wouldn’t let poll workers inside on time.

In Soundview, Freedom Party campaign workers handed out flyers just outside of P.S. 93, in violation of a prohibition against campaigning close to the polling site; they remained on the premises for more than two hours, before they left on their own.

Unprepared poll workers were the source of some complaints, albeit fewer than Lindblom anticipated. The executive director of the New York City League of Women Voters explained that poll workers were trained to instruct voters to turn over their ballot to see two propositions on the back.  They were also trained to correct the incorrect voting instructions printed on the ballot.  His colleague said she was not confident workers would act consistently.  “I think the really underreported story is the personnel,” said Kate Duran, chair of the League’s city affairs committee. Duran, who was coordinating a polling site in Brooklyn, said some of her workers didn’t show up because they would have to work from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Koppell wondered on the eve of the election if the small cadre of poll workers was up to the task of handling the complicated system.  “It requires going to one place, then taking the ballot to a second place to fill it out, and to a third place to have it counted,” he said.  “I’m very nervous.”

Elected officials and advocacy groups said they will continue to push for needed reforms.

In the meantime, Bronx voters are taking the new system in stride.

“We’ll get used to it,” said Darlene Cruz, 53, of Soundview.  “But I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

Exit polls and additional reporting by the Bronx Ink staff.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Election 2010, Politics0 Comments

From earth science to the main stage

Mile Delaney, Joe Boccagno and Mark Guerra performing on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Delaney, Boccagno and Guerra performing on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

If the Beach Boys and the Ramones had a lovechild and that lovechild idolized the Kinks, he would grow up to be The Kezners, a hard-rocking, bass loving, ska sounding punk-ish band from the Bronx.

The Kezners are a group of four guys born and raised in the Bronx: Mike Delaney, 27, guitar, synth, harmonica and vocals; Alex Rivera, 26, guitar, synth, harmonica; Mark Guerra, 26, bass; Joe Boccagno, 26, drums and vocals.

Their look is as eclectic as their sound. Delaney recently wore bright red suspenders on stage while Boccagno wore a black dress shirt, which clashed a bit with Animal from the Muppets perched on his drum kit. Rivera wore a plaid, 1990s Eddie Vedder-type button down and Guerra rocked his bass in a “Bronx: only the strong survive” T-shirt.

The Kezners met 10 years ago at I.S. 192 in Throgs Neck and it’s this same school that inspired their name. They’re honoring David Kezner, their earth science teacher, who they all loved and was a source of inspiration. The band says he pushed them to be their best and to explore any and all of their interests, including music.


Guerra, Delaney and Rivera started out as street performers. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

They describe their music as “danceable upbeat rhythms with subject matter about life, death, personal growth and companionship.” They now have around 100 guests at each show—often playing gigs promoted and booked by Bronx Underground—but they still remember their rather modest beginnings.

“We started out as street performers, most notably playing outside Frank Bee’s costume shop during the Halloween season,” Boccagno said. “Sometimes the police would dig the music, but other times they would tell us to beat it.” This rough beginning influenced their performance style, which is full of stage jumping, head banging, sweating and Kevin Bacon-style “Footloose” dance moves—all meant to draw attention and keep people from looking away. It works. The Kezners, in an effort to remember their start, are playing Saturday shows this Halloween season outside of Frank Bee’s on East Tremont Avenue in Throgs Neck.

Back in their I.S. 192 days, the guys also received some pointers from professional musicians, thanks to Boccagno’s father, who would also take them to an old local bar, the Shannon Seaview, where members of David Peel’s Lower East Side band would hang out. They got to play with these experienced musicians, some who used to play with John Lennon, and began creating their own sound—moving from covering songs by their favorite bands to creating their own.

Throughout their career, the Kezners have played everywhere from basements to big stages. “We’ve played half-naked and in three-piece suits,” Boccagno said. “We even once lugged a heavy organ up several flights of stairs just so that we can use it on one song on Iona College radio.” Seven years ago they even played a burlesque show at New York City’s famed and now-defunct punk rock mecca CBGB, which closed in October 2006.

The Kezners have also experience a few near-death experiences while playing shows, specifically shows at Waterbury Estates, a housing community in Pelham Bay. “All the neighborhood kids would come out and the vibe was great,” Boccagno said. “Everyone was just so into the music that we would often crowd-surf during our own sets, which was always terrifying because of these low-hanging ceiling fans which they always had on high during the show. A few times, we came close to getting clocked by those fans.”

The Kezners performing for a large crowd on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

The Kezners now draw sizeable crowds. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Their followers love The Kezners beause of their unique, hard-rocking sound. “It’s fun, original music that not everyone is doing,” said Mazzola, 23, a Bronx-based drummer who goes by only his last name.

What’s refreshing about The Kezners is that they don’t seem solely focused on big money and big success, like most up-and-coming musicians. They seem happy playing for their Bronx base because they simply love playing music.

“We see ourselves playing together for as long as the good Lord wants us around,” Boccagno said. “Playing music is what we do and what we love and we hope to reach as many people that are willing to listen.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, East Bronx, Southern Bronx0 Comments

The Bronx is burning…with rock ‘n’ roll

Fans line up outside of the First Lutheran Church in Throgs Neck. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans line up outside of the First Lutheran Church in Throgs Neck. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

At 6 p.m. on a Friday night, hundreds of teenagers and twenty-somethings lined up outside of the First Lutheran Church in the northeast Bronx. Flanked by quiet and residential Baisley Avenue and the busy Throgs Neck Expressway, the eager crowds waited patiently for the white wooden doors on the brick church to open so their Friday night could begin.

The lines weren’t for a church youth group or a retreat, but for a whole different kind of religious experience—a rock concert.

One girl saw Drew Torres, a local singer/songwriter unloading his guitar from the trunk of his car, grabbed her friend and said, “Oh my God! That’s Drew Torres!”

Music fans from all over the Bronx flock to the church, which they affectionately call the FLC, for some music, dancing and a place to see their friends—all 300 of them.

Three weekends a month, Bronx Underground, a grassroots, do-it-yourself music promotion group now in its tenth year, puts on low cost, alcohol-free shows for all ages to promote the burgeoning rock scene in the Bronx. Fans come from all over the Bronx as well as Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“The music scene in the Bronx is vibrant and cutting edge, waiting for the moment where it can explode from the confines of this borough to influence music and new artists nationwide,” said Dave Rose, 31, one of Bronx Underground’s founders.

Drew Torres played a half hour set at the church on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Drew Torres played a half hour set at the church on Oct. 8. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

In 2000, Rose, along with Anita Colby, 30, and Adam Fachler, 29, began Bronx Underground as a way to bring local music to Bronx residents. The fact that this movement has lasted 10 years “blows their minds,” Colby said, particularly when these shows are taking place in the same church basement where Rose did Boy Scouts and Colby attended nursery school.

“Adam, Anita and myself were all involved in bands, and had been for a few years,” Rose said. “We had gotten used to being mistreated by management of venues, getting screwed or denied stage time in Manhattan. It was a response to a horrible scene that existed for younger artists at the time.”

The shows also often excluded the younger crowds because most venues require show-goers to be 21 or older.

“We really wanted to bring this music to everyone,” Colby said. “There was a need for a positive place for kids to come hear music.”

So the three pooled their resources and started booking and promoting their own shows.  More than 150 people came to their first show in October 2000 in the City Island Community Center, as unlikely a setting as a Lutheran church. Rock fans were head banging under the City Island Nautical Museum.

On Oct. 8, Bronx Underground celebrated its 10th birthday at the First Lutheran Church with five hours of bands and solo artists in the church basement. An estimated 200 people paid the $9 cover to hear A Moment’s Worth, Frantic Ian, The Kezners, Turns to Fall, Drew Torres, How I Became a Pirate and What’s Your Problem Brian. Musicians watched other bands perform and mingled with the fans while waiting for their turn on stage and munching on birthday cake made by Bronx-based bakery Land of Cake Believe, a business created with the help of the Bronx Underground fan base.

“It’s been a great gathering place for everyone,” said Colby. “Everyone is friends and it’s a very racially diverse group. It’s split 50/50 between male and female. It’s just a way to connect with other people who like the same music you do.”

Fans waiting outside the church for the show to start evoked a more democratic version of the typical high school lunchroom scene. Girls wearing skirts and UGG boots were hugging and chatting with boys in baggy pants and comic book T-shirts. Leather met lace, nose piercings paired with hair bows and tattoos converged with perfectly manicured nails—an eclectic mix of people and styles.

Fans wore birthday hats to celebrate 10 years of Bronx Underground. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans wore birthday hats to celebrate 10 years of Bronx Underground. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

It’s this sense of belonging that keeps fans coming back for more.

“You can’t find shows like this anywhere else,” said Dayna Lugo, 16, of Throgs Neck, who has been coming to the shows for almost two years. “It’s a great place where everyone has the same interests. It’s safe.”  Bags are checked and metal detection devices are used at the entrance to every show.

Providing a safe haven is an essential part of Bronx Underground’s mission.

“We have given kids a comfortable safe place to be themselves, to be away from the pressures of school and family, to allow them to socialize on their own terms, all while promoting the sense that arts and music are important to support and actively participate in,” Rose said.

It’s also a grassroots movement. Bronx Underground promotes itself as “music by the kids, for the kids” and this really resonates with younger audiences.

“The whole scene coming out of the Bronx right now is revolving around the do-it-yourself ethic,” said John Blattner, 17, a self-described lifelong Bronx music fan. “It’s really this whole ‘screw the big labels’ mentality. What these artists are doing are recording music the way they want to, going to local studios, labels, and distributing the music online and locally.” Bands bring CDs to shows or upload their music to iTunes, MySpace or their own websites.

And it’s Blattner’s generation that the Bronx Underground hopes will keep this movement going. Rock, ska, punk and emo are taking the stage in the borough that practically invented modern rap, launching the careers of Big Punisher, Grandmaster Flash and Fat Joe, among others.

“Kids today can’t remember when there wasn’t a great music scene in the Bronx and to me that’s funny because we didn’t have that growing up,” said Colby, who grew up around Throgs Neck and plays saxophone in What’s Your Problem Brian. “It’s only going to flourish from here.”

Bronx Underground sticks to low-cost venues like the church because each show they put on pays for the next. Covers are typically $9 or $10. They have a paid staff of about 20 who work the shows part-time;  the rest of the take goes to sound engineers, the venue and the bands. The church has been their main venue for the last five years; before that, they also put on shows at The Point Community Center in Hunts Point and at Orchard Beach.

All three founders have day jobs. Colby is in market research, Fachler works in sales support in the music industry and Rose is a music teacher at Lehman High School.

Many of the part-timers say they signed up because it’s fun. James Beary, 24, has been supervising shows for Bronx Underground for three years and said it’s the best part-time job he’s ever had. “The scene here in the Bronx is something I never dreamed could happen,” said Breary, who was raised between Brooklyn and Harlem. “It’s like a family. It’s so full of life and I think the most important thing is that it keeps kids off the streets.”

It’s a rock scene that even parents seem to appreciate. Colby said that often when she’s out around town, parents stop her and thank her for giving their kids a safe place to be on a Friday night.

“There’s always going to be people who see groups of teenagers and freak out,” Colby said. “But generally the community is really supportive because they know it’s productive.”

Lugo said her parents let her come to the shows because of their reputation for being safe and well supervised. Each show has 10-15 staff members plus Colby, Rose and Fachler working the door and mingling within the crowds.

“They know it’s what I like and they know I won’t get into trouble,” Lugo said.

It’s this reputation and its popularity with the younger generation that has helped Bronx Underground triple in size over the past 10 years. It went from 150 people at monthly shows to over 300 people at shows three times a month. According to Colby, Bronx Underground has a list of bands waiting to be booked. In the beginning, they heard from  just a handful of bands looking for gigs;  now they’re getting hundreds of emails a month about bookings.

“The last 10 years of rock music in the Bronx has reached beyond anything that came before it,” Rose said. “The number of bands and the amount of support they receive from fans citywide is staggering and I can’t think of any other time where the scene was as strong as it is today.”

Bronx Underground didn’t introduce rock to the borough, but it did nurture the spirit inherited from Bronx rock legends like Paul Stanley of Kiss and Charlie Benante from Anthrax.

Fans danced and sang along while listening to Frantic Ian. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Fans danced and sang along while listening to Frantic Ian. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

“It feels kind of awkward to claim that we started the movement, because without the bands to build a scene around, there couldn’t have been a movement,” Rose said. “But I really do feel that without the Bronx Underground, the scene would have never moved out of the funk that it was in. I’d be happy with taking 50 percent of the credit. The people writing the music and investing in their art get the other 50 percent.”

Among the musicians, Bronx pride thrives. The bass player for The Kezners wore a T-shirt that said, “Bronx, only the strong survive” when they played on Oct. 8. Could that mean that the Bronx is becoming cool?

“The Bronx Underground is more of a family than a scene to kids like us,” Blattner said. “It tries to bring local artists into the spotlight as the Bronx doesn’t get much recognition in the whole NYC music scene.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Dropping pounds, gaining votes

Luis Sepulveda is a democratic candidate for state assembly. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Luis Sepulveda is a democratic candidate for state assembly. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Luis Sepulveda squinted. He had purple bags under his eyes and his once perfectly tailored suit jacket hung awkwardly off his shoulders, a reminder of the 18,000 doors he said he knocked on during his six months of campaigning.

He looked exhausted as he entered the auditorium of P.S. 106 in Parkchester for the Bangladeshi Eid Festival. However, as soon as someone came up to greet him, the fatigue lifted from his eyes and his face erupted into a wide smile revealing a slight overbite and laugh lines.

“I’ve dropped from 184 pounds to 150 pounds,” Sepulveda said with a laugh. “I’ve lost 34 pounds just from pounding the pavement. Running for office is the best diet I’ve ever been on.”

Sepulveda is running for state assembly in the 76th District in the Bronx, launching a spirited challenge to the nine-term incumbent Peter Rivera. Sepulveda, 46,  has been running his campaign by himself, with volunteer staffers from his law offices in Parkchester.

He hopes to take the election in a landslide today ousting Rivera, who has been in office for 18 years,  and what he calls “a tenure of ignoring the people.” He has been courting the growing Bangladeshi population in the district and advertising himself as an “everyman”—hard working and trustworthy.

Luis Sepulveda watches a Bangladeshi event in Parkchester last on Sept. 12. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Luis Sepulveda watches a Bangladeshi event in Parkchester on Sept. 12. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Sepulveda first became interested in running when he read an article in The New York Times that said Rivera was working against legislation that would provide cheaper prescriptions to the elderly—legislation that his older family members and friends in the district relied on.

Aside from their differing views on care for the elderly, Sepulveda and Rivera have a lot in common politically. Rivera has voted in favor of gay marriage and says he would do it again, while Sepulveda also supports the cause, citing that he understands the issue because he has a gay brother.

Sepulveda has said he plans to clean up the area around Bronx Park South to bring tourists into the local businesses and work to restore service to the 14 bus, which ran from Country Club to Parkchester. He wants to create a community safety task force and more educational programs for kids to get them excited about learning.

Sepulveda learned hard work and a voracious desire to help the community at a young age.

He was raised in Brooklyn’s Morgan Avenue Housing Project in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican immigrants. His father was a merchant and his mother worked in a factory. After saving up money, the family moved to Williamsburg and then to Queens where Sepulveda graduated from high school in 1982.

He attended Hofstra University in Long Island where he studied physics, chemistry and biology with the goal of attending medical school but decided upon graduation that law was a better fit, more “dynamic.”

Sepulveda attributes his interest in law to his maternal grandfather, Rafael Perez, who taught himself to read and write in English and Spanish by reading and translating court cases.

“My earliest memory of him was him reading me Plessy v. Ferguson and being so excited about it,” Sepulveda said. “It upheld ‘separate but equal’ but my grandfather was just excited to be sharing history with me.”

Sepulveda graduated from Hofstra University Law School in 1991 and took a job at a mid-size law firm on Long Island, but he quickly got bored with the nonstop revolving door of cases. He wanted to connect with people.

Luis Sepulveda (right) with Bangladeshi community leader Zakir Khan (left) and another Bangladeshi leader. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Luis Sepulveda (right) with Bangladeshi community leader Zakir Khan (left) and another Bangladeshi leader. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

So, in 1994 he moved to Parkchester in the Bronx, set up his own legal practice and began to offer pro bono legal services while working for state senators.

“The money was good but in the end I decided the $50,000 pay cut was worth it to help people and really reach out,” Supulveda said of his decision to begin working as an attorney to State Sen. Pedro Gonzalez and then State Sen. Ruben Diaz.

This connection with Diaz has lead Rivera to call him “Mini Diaz” and claim that his campaign has not been about his accomplishments but a “kill Peter Rivera” campaign instead.

Rivera claims that Sepulveda hasn’t voted in five years, a claim that Sepulveda said is not true.

The fact is, however, that many of Sepulveda’s campaign flyers and posters, many of which he hands out and hangs up himself, do attack Rivera outright but Sepulveda rationalizes this, claiming that they attack his policies in terms of bettering the community and not Rivera as a person. However, Rivera sees it as a crutch but still isn’t worried about the outcome of the race.

“I don’t think he can run on a policy of change, I think his only option is to be negative, negative, negative,” Rivera said. “I can understand that as a politician but I can also understand that there’s more to life than my seat…but I expect to win.”

Back at the Eid Festival Sepulveda seemed in his element. He talked to people about their day, about the holiday, about their concerns. He may not be the strongest  public speaker, but Sepulveda excels at one on one conversations.

He bonded with his constituents over raising a child in the Bronx and the struggle to overcome poverty. His son is now 18 and a third-semester student at Manhattan College—something that makes Sepulveda an extremely proud father. He’s an ardent supporter of education especially since becoming an undergraduate law professor at Mercy College. He likes charter schools, which are sparse in the borough.

His supporters say his track record inspires them.

“Luis would stay in class until midnight-if we needed him to,” said Elizabeth Morel, a former student turned campaign volunteer. “Personally, he made me a better student, a stronger person and a more confident woman. Luis genuinely cares for his community. He’s going to be our next assemblyman.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Politics0 Comments

Parkchester mugging turns political


Masema Afraze, the victim's wife, waits at the crime scene for police Sunday night. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

By Caitlin Tremblay and Nicola Kean

An evening of Bangladeshi fun and culture turned violent—and political—Sunday night when a Parkchester man was beaten and robbed outside a school.

Three youths punched a 43-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant in the face as he was walking on St. Raymond Avenue to  a cultural event at P.S. 106 around 8 p.m. Sunday night, according to Masuma Afraze, the victim’s wife. The young men ran off with her husband’s wallet, cell phone and cigarettes, leaving him bleeding from the head and unable to talk because of the shock.

Md Anwar Hossain, recently laid off as a traffic worker, was taken by ambulance to the hospital and was released early Monday morning. He had four stitches in his mouth and will have to return to the hospital for further plastic surgery, Afraze said.

Md Anwiar Hossain's glasses lie on the pavement after he was mugged outside a Bangladeshi cultural event late Sunday night. Photo: Sean Gillespie

Md Anwiar Hossain's glasses lie on the pavement after he was mugged outside a Bangladeshi cultural event late Sunday night. Photo: Sean Gillespie

“This violence needs to stop. It’s always around,” said Afraze, who was at home just blocks away when the attack happened. “I think the area needs more safety.”

Candidates for the 76th district state assembly seat, Luis Sepulveda and incumbent Peter Rivera, who were attending the event inside the school, rushed to the scene when they heard the news. Both men jumped on their cell phones to phone the police.

Afraze stood between the two candidates, noticeably shaken, holding her black hair away from her face with one hand, while trying to pull her pink sari over her shoulders to fend off the chilly night.

The candidates managed to use the incident as another campaign platform for Tuesday’s primary. Sepulveda and Rivera shook hands, posed for photos, consoled the distraught wife, but did not speak to one another.

“Street violence has increased at least 20 percent in the last year,” Sepulveda said. “It has to do with the economy. I want to start a community task force to police the streets.”

Rivera, who stayed at the scene until police arrived, said he was in favor of closing the nearby park by 6 p.m. every night so the youths would not congregate. He quietly handed Afraze his business card and told her to come to his office with her husband when he recovered.

Despite the candidates’ best efforts, police did not arrive on the scene for over an hour after the attack, even though Sepulveda estimated that the precinct was less than eight minutes away.

“You put on your lights and your siren and you get here quickly,” Sepulveda said. “There’s a lot of apathy with the police at the moment.”

Assemblyman Peter Rivera speaks with Masema Afraze after her husband was attacked outside of a Bangledeshi cultural event Sunday night. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Assemblyman Peter Rivera speaks with Masema Afraze after her husband was attacked outside of a Bangledeshi cultural event Sunday night. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

The candidates discovered later that the 911 service had been down for the evening. “The service goes down once or twice a year,” Rivera said. “I don’t know why there was no backup.”

Police at the scene said that Hossain’s attack will be written up as a robbery because his injuries were minimal. They also said that the robbery task force was meeting with Hossain at the hospital, as he could only identify one of his attackers.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, East Bronx1 Comment

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