The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble and organizers from Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education pose on the Alexander Ave. stoop.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

It was a glorious spring afternoon. The Alexander Avenue stoop in the historic Mott Haven section of the Bronx provided a multi-level staging area for the Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble’s music that brought traditional jazz mixed with Garifuna music to this South Bronx neighborhood. The ensemble aims to bring awareness to the endangered language of the Garifuna people through jazz music.

This intimate sharing of music and culture is part of the month-long South Bronx Culture Trail Fusion Fest 2016, which runs until May 22. Held in many venues in the South Bronx, this cultural program bills itself as a festival held on “stoops, roofs and in nooks.”

On this stoop, Gary “Wicked” Fritz and his assemblage of percussive-making instruments were enthroned at the top of the stairs, with vocalist Lucy Blanco steps below. The Ensemble’s co-founder James Lovell and his Garifuna drum along with Hilliard Greene on bass were in the pit, while Mario Sprouse on keyboard and Julian Meyers on sax played from the sidewalk.

As the performance progressed, Bronx neighbors stopped to hang along the edges or skirted the street to listen to the hour-long concert. Treated to Summertime and Besame Mucho, the words to these familiar standards had been translated and were sung in the Garifuna language. For the street side audience, the sidewalk became a dance floor with only the slightest encouragement from the band.

The festival entitled “Lookin’ Up in the Boogie Down” pays tribute to pioneer Bronx artists who were inspired by the neighborhood and sites in community organizations, playgrounds, bodegas and improvisational venues.

Co-founder vocalist Lucy Blanco whose parents migrated from a small fisherman’s village in Santa Rosa de Aguan, Honduras Central America was born in the Bronx.

This was the first of this year’s 14 neighborhood stoops, roofs, and nooks performances held on the street. How was it for the band? Blanco said, “It was a great feeling and I appreciated going back in time when artists and their fans could interact with the community.”

Following the performance, Blanco proudly accepted for the band a “pioneer” plaque from the 80-year-old Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education that presented the afternoon gig.

The festival’s other collaborating partners are Dancing in the Streets, City Lore, Lincoln Centre’s Boro-Linc, Bronx Music Heritage Center, Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance, and NYCHA.

The schedule, a Who’s Who of local jazz musicians and performers includes Bill T. Jones dancer alumnae Arthur Aviles, Grammy award winners drummer Will Cahoun, Latin Jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill and drummer percussionist Bobby Sanabria; jazz pianist and arranger Bertha Hope bandleader and International Jazz Hall of Fame inductee Lou Donaldson, African troubadour Abdoulaye Diabete, NYC all-star youth big band Fat Afro Latin Jazz Cats, Bangladeshi American band The Feringhees, Bronx native bassist Carlos Henriquez, and core member of hip hop/soul project Soul Baba Israel, among others. For the schedule

Among the eight upcoming performances are: Okwui Okpokwasili-4/29-30, (Baad!/2474 Westchester Ave. 8 pm, $15); a parade and performance, Marching Cobras & Sapphire Dance Line, Carlos Henriquez Jazz Latino Oreste Abrantes Jr. Y Su Orquesta -4/30, (Msgr. Raul del Valle Sq. Bruckner Blvd., Hunts Point Ave., 1pm); Bertha Hope & Jazzberry Jam! The Mimi Jones Band-5/7 (Graham Triangle, 138 St., 3rd. Ave. 2 pm.)

Arturo O’Farrill Trio & Fat Afro Latin Jazz Cats, Abdoulaye Diabate and Super Manden and Digital Diaspora will perform on May 22 the finale performance at 52 Park/across from 681 Kelly, at 1 pm. All are free unless noted.

The sidewalk became a dance floor while the jazz ensemble plays for the ‘hood.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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