The diverse music traditions of the Lower East Side

Our Egg Rolls, Egg Creams & Empanadas festival is named after iconic food items that were developed and popularized by immigrant communities. Like chef Lucas Sin told us last week, food is a such a great window into greater cultural exploration. But food is hardly the only way that immigrant communities innovate and carve out a place for themselves in a larger culture.  This week, we turn to these diverse music traditions and way they have enriched communities and provided avenues for cultural connection and collaboration. 

Just like food embodies memory and customs, so does music. In our Chinatown/Lower East Side/Loisaida neighborhood, immigrants have shared their folk music, adapted it to their new home, and taken on new inspirations that enhance the traditions even further. These traditions connect us to our pasts, to our ancestors. And they also connect us to each other! There’s something innate in music that makes us want to gather, to experience it together. This week for the festival, we’re diving into three music traditions from three diverse cultures – bomba y plena, Chinese folk music, and klezmer music.

Learn a bit about the groups performing at this year’s virtual festival – and then get your free ticket to join us with these musical acts at our next program Sunday June 13 at 4PM


Los Pleneros de la 21 

Los Pleneros de la 21 is not only a Puerto Rican ensemble based in East Harlem  – they’re also a nonprofit community organization. Founded in 1983 by Juan “Juango” Gutiérrez and Marcial Reyes Arvelo, the group seeks to promote bomba y plena music across the globe. These two distinct but complementary musical styles were developed in Puerto Rican and originate with the traditions of enslaved African people brought to Puerto Rico in the 1600s. Bomba came first and later inspired the creation of plena. Each style uses specific instruments, rhythms and lyrical styles to evoke emotion and movement in the listener. 

The Los Pleneros de la 21 band includes multiple generations of highly skilled musicians, singers, and dancers. And the nonprofit carries out an important mission, too; it provides educational programs and dance workshops for youth and adults to practice Puerto Rican traditions and culture.  



EastRiver Ensemble

Mencius Society for the Arts’ EastRiver Ensemble is an ensemble of northern Chinese musicians. Specializing in the Hebei and Dongbei regions of China, EastRiver performs traditional folk songs with a modern flair. The yangqin, a hammered dulcimer, leads the band, alongside bamboo winds (dizi and xiao), reed oboes (sona and guanzi), and other percussion instruments. EastRiver Ensemble real uniqueness shines when they incorporate tidbits from other musical cultures in their arrangements of this traditional Chinese music – you may hear Arabic drums or even riffs from Broadway jingles. These unique touches underscore the way diverse cultures are constantly in conversation with each other in New York City. Just as Black and Jewish musicians once mixed jazz and klezmer music, EastRiver is finding new inspiration for their Chinese folk music in the bustling crowds of the city. At our program on Sunday, EastRiver Ensemble is represented by Guo Ran (pipa, ruan), Peter Wu Tang (erhu), Sun Wei (guzheng), Julie H. Tay (percussion), Xiao Xiannian (yangqin), and Xu Yuyuan (dizi). This event is also part supported by NYSCA and the New York City DCA under the Mencius Society’s 2021 Silk and Bamboo Breeze project.


Steve Weintraub and D. Zisl Slepovitch Trio

Steve Weintraub dancing through the streets at a past Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas festival.

Speaking of klezmer music – according to some, Steve Weintraub is the “Pied Piper of Yiddish dance.” Steve is a teacher, choreographer, and performer of Jewish dance, particularly  Yiddish dance, the dance to klezmer music. Born on Governor’s Island, bar mitzvahed in the Bronx, and currently residing in Philadelphia, Steven Lee Weintraub received his dance training in Manhattan with Alvin Ailey and Erick Hawkins, among others. He is passionate about sharing the joys of Yiddish dance with people, and can get just about anyone–in person or virtually–moving. 

Originally from Minsk, Belarus, D. Zisl Slepovitch is a musicologist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, Yiddish educator, and more. He is the founding member of critically acclaimed bands Litvakus, Zisl Slepovitch Trio, and Zisl Slepovitch Ensemble. His trio formed in 2016, and bridges varying musical backgrounds. 

Catch LP21, EastRiver, and Steve Weintraub with Zisl Slepovitch Trio on June 13th at 4pm! You won’t want to miss these riveting performances. 

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