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For This Musical Community, The Tiny Desk Contest Was An Excuse To Reunite

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This year NPR Music held its third annual Tiny Desk Contest. We invited unsigned musicians from across the United States to submit videos of themselves performing original songs, and our panel of judges — including All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton — selected one winner to play a Tiny Desk concert here at NPR's offices.

The winner of this year's contest, a New Orleans band called Tank and the Bangas, played its Tiny Desk last week. But Tank and her crew were just one of more than 6,000 bands and artists that entered — and within that pool were a lot of talented musicians who did not win.

Take Alex Bondarev of Bronx, N.Y. His band, Conversing with Oceans, also submitted a video to last year's Tiny Desk Contest. Bondarev liked the idea enough to enter again in 2017 — but when he filmed his video this year, he thought bigger.

Bondarev says that, after he moved as a child from Russia to Bronx, he joined "a really strong and supportive music community" called the Bronx Underground, which he says existed from about 1999 to 2015. The Bronx Underground held regular all-ages concerts with bands of every genre; Bondarev's band played the first-ever Bronx Underground show.

"It was really our first experience with a live concert, it was before we even really knew how to play our instruments," he says. "But we were just hooked from the energy, from the momentum and from a community of tremendous support built around music."

So when Bondarev set out to make his Tiny Desk Contest entry this year, he had an idea: the "Tiny Bronx Contest."

"I thought, I have a friend that does sound, I have a friend who does video," he says. "Why not just invite our friends from the Bronx Underground and have it be like this epic show get-together where everybody just walks away with a great video?"

He set a date and put the call out, and in late January the Bronx Underground came together again at a local bar called Jimmy Ryan's. In the end, Bondarev says, 12 artists from Bronx and elsewhere — including R&B singer Bryan Durieux and a progressive-rock band called Baychester Blues — made videos at the event. But the Tiny Bronx Contest had less tangible results, too.

"It was great to see all these people that kind of grew up in the soil of the Bronx Underground — where they were now, what they were doing, what they sounded like, what they were excited about," Bondarev says. "It's easier to do things in your community than I thought."

Hear Bondarev tell the story of the Tiny Bronx Contest at the audio link, and stay tuned for more stories from this year's Tiny Desk Contest entrants in the coming weeks.

 

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Janet Upadhye

is a multimedia journalist covering the Hunts Point section of Bronx. In a past life she was the Development Director at San Francisco Women Against Rape. During her decade in the Bay Area she also organized within queer and trans communities for safety and justice.