Field of Drums

Seminal Nuyorican Musicians Steal Home a Half-Century After Stickball, to the South Bronx Blocks That Spawned Them

But for the others, the 52 reunion will be a different kind of landmark, a nonmaterial monument to a bygone era. Organizers behind the South Bronx Latin Music Project hope shared cultural memory can help rebuild an alternate meaning for the neighborhood, which symbolized urban destruction for a generation of presidents. The site of the upcoming show, the park that local activists rescued from junkies and junked cars 20 years ago, drums the message home.

On a recent afternoon, Benny Bonilla, one of the hardworking sidemen who fueled the South Bronx scene in its heyday, guided his cream-soda-colored Grand Marquis to the curb in front of his home in the North Bronx. Bonilla played on "I Like It Like That," but he still remembers slinging his conga over his shoulder and heading to 52, one of his first regular gigs.

"Sometimes I write things down that I read," Bonilla says. "The other day I came across something. Louis Armstrong once said, 'Musicians don't retire. They stop when there's no more music in them.' That's how we feel. I'm 66. I'm going to be 67. I didn't retire. I'd do a gig tomorrow. But it's like the major league. You've got to step back and let the younger guys do it. If someone asked me to do a gig tomorrow, I'd do it tomorrow. Musicians who say they're retired are full of shit. 'Want to do a gig tomorrow?' "

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