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A Walking Tour Of Fascinating Rhythms And Gritty Rhymes


July 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Orlando Rodriguez is a hip-hop guy. He wears a baseball cap, a bright white shirt and baggy jeans. He is 32 years old. His first CD, called "Top Notch," just came out.

Angel Rodriguez is a mambo guy. He wears a slick black suit, a ponytail and fancy leather shoes. He is 49 years old. He plays the congas and timbales in Latin places throughout New York City.

Although the two men share a name, they are not related. They do, however, work as partners, taking turns as the guide for a biweekly walking tour of the musical traditions of the South Bronx, where both grew up.

The tour is billed as "Mambo to Hip-Hop" and tells the story of the South Bronx through the music of its streets. It starts with the advent of the Cuban balladeers in 1945 and wends its way through Latin fusion, ska, soul and boogaloo toward rap.

Along the way, the tour might pass the ordinary-looking building on Southern Boulevard where the Hunts Point Palace used to stand and the Duane Reade next door that once was home to a Latin dance hall called the Triton Club.

In the South Bronx, history comes in layers. The two guides might stop at the same place but have different stories to tell.

"There's a generational difference," Orlando Rodriguez said. "Angel remembers the Hunts Point Palace as this bustling place where Eddie Palmieri used to play. To me, the Palace was where my parents went to dance. I remember it for what it used to be."

He also remembers it as the crumbling building down the block from a clothing shop that became a hip-hop mecca in the 1980's as kids from Queens, New Jersey, Brooklyn, the Bronx – everywhere, it seemed – bought their fat-laced sneakers, Le Tigre shirts, Lee jeans and Kangol hats.

The tour, which is 90 minutes long and is in its second year, is organized by a company called Firsthand NY Walks. It starts at the Point, a South Bronx community center, moves beneath the Bruckner Expressway overpass into the neighborhood and ends on Prospect Avenue at Casa Amadeo, which bills itself as the city's oldest record shop, and where there is subtle encouragement to buy a CD. The tour itself costs $15.

The asphalt lot outside Public School 52 on Kelly Street is a typical stop. To Angel Rodriguez, it is the alma mater for Latin greats like Mr. Palmieri and Tito Cepeda (as well as others, like Colin Powell). To Orlando Rodriguez, it is where the outdoor hip-hop concerts of the 1970's took place.

Led by men who know the Bronx, the tour also offers street tips of the sort not typically found in tourist guidebooks. Orlando Rodriguez will say, for instance, that in Dominican-owned bodegas the candy usually surrounds the register, while in Puerto Rican-owned bodegas the candy is always a little to the left. Neither man knows why.

The Bronx has its major tourist destinations like Yankee Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden, the zoo. This tour is designed for a different clientele.

"We're trying to target the hip-hop traveler demographic," said Paul Lipson, executive director of the Point, where the tour is based. "It's not for people who like to ride a bus."

Mr. Lipson said he hoped to attract tourists age 17 to 35 – from, as he put it, everywhere from Barcelona to Athens, Ga. – who are hoping to see firsthand the birthplace of the music they listen to every day. He said he also hoped that as the hip-hop generation ages, parents who have left the Bronx will bring their children back on nostalgia trips.

The tour has yet to attract a steady following, Mr. Lipson said. In fact, one of the few people not connected to the tour to come out yesterday was a man named Jim Lockery, who lives in the Bronx.

"They like to break into cars here," Mr. Lockery said with concern as he parked his Dodge Neon outside the Point before the tour.

Later, Mr. Lockery was looking a little peaked. "I hear this music in my own neighborhood," he said.

Neither Rodriguez seems to mind right now if tour attendance is somewhat slow. They don't do it for the money, they said, they do it for the sounds.

"As you walk through the Bronx, there's an ever-changing city, ever-changing times," Orlando Rodriguez said, "but it always has a deep connection to the past."

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