Music, poetry, exhibits find South Bronx base at El Fogon
When Treve Bynum walked into the former bodega on Home Street, she thought she had made a mistake and walked into someone’s living room.
Until she heard poet A. Lyric announce, “This ain’t your grandmother’s poetry.” Then, she says, she knew the shuttered storefront nestled on the corner of a quiet residential block, really was El Fogon, the newest alternative arts space in the South Bronx.
Inside patrons and performers mingle near a small stage in a room furnished with recycled futons, folding chairs and a gold Victorian parlor set. On any given night a visitor might encounter a spoken word performance or an original R & B concert, a one-woman play or world-renowned Afro-Cuban Rumba performers.
Mott Haven resident Alberto Brooks says he and his co-owner are on a mission to keep the arts alive in the Bronx. Their plan is two-fold. They hope to bring internationally-known artists to the area while also providing a launching pad for new and emerging local talent looking for a place to hone their craft. Both groups have little access to more commercial institutions in New York.
“It’s great to finally have a place to perform in my own neighborhood,” said spoken word artist Camonghne Felix who performed during a recent Open Mike Night. Though Felix has performed her original works across the country, including leading a team to win HBO’s 2010 Brave New Voices competition in Los Angeles, she rarely performs in her own community because of the lack of venues.
In the audience was an aspiring young poet nicknamed Popcorn. Just 10-years-old, she studied Felix’s performance, taking notes and asking questions. Only a few minutes earlier Popcorn had stood on stage and read one of her original pieces, describing how it felt to fall asleep wishing for a father’s love. The audience was transfixed, and several quickly wiped their eyes as she left the stage.
Later Popcorn’s mother asked her when she wrote the poem, and the 5th grader said she got the inspiration one night while remembering a period when her father was not in her life. These days her dad is often in the audience, and has started writing his own poetry, inspired by his daughter.
“Having a place like this in the Bronx means everything to my daughter,” said Popcorn’s mother Kay Marshall. Without El Fogon, she says, they would have to travel one to two hours each way for Popcorn to get a shot at performing, sometimes arriving home way past her bedtime.
Bronxite Julissa Rodriquez, a visual artist, echoes Marshall. After searching for almost a year to find a place to exhibit her work close to home, she said she was shocked the first time she walked into El Fogon. “I couldn’t believe this was here in the Bronx,” she said.
In February, Rodriquez got her first opportunity to curate a show in the space. She said the excitement on the faces of the local artists whose work she chose was priceless.
Starting in June she will curate the center’s first original monthly series called “The Melting Pot,” a mix of visual art, film, spoken word poetry and music from local artists.
Brooks says it’s only a matter of time before El Fogon becomes known the world over as an international destination for authentic music, art and dance.
Last month, hours after the Grammy-nominated Cuban group Los Munequitos de Matanza ended their !Si!Cuba! show at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, they showed up at El Fogon. Brooks says they were looking for the little space in the South Bronx they had heard about back home.
Although President Bush’s embargo on visas for Cuban artists had kept the group from the United States since 2002, they told Brooks they knew their music was alive in New York City because Cubans talked about Friday nights at El Fogon hosted by legendary Afro-Cuban drummer Felix “Pupy” Isua–the only
place in the Northeast regularly performing their style of Rumba.
The band members looked around crowded room, said Brooks, and exclaimed, “Wow! Estamos en nuestra casa!” (Wow! We are in our own house!)
A version of this story appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.