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

Mar 12, 2017

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 didn't 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 the 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 the 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.

Lucy Perkins produced the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This year was NPR Music's third annual Tiny Desk Contest. More than 6,000 bands submitted videos of original songs. Our judges picked their favorite, Tank and the Bangas performing their song "Quick." You can watch that video and their Tiny Desk Concert on the NPR Music website. But we wanted to check out some of the artists who didn't win.

One is Alex Bondarev. He's from the Bronx. And last year, he submitted a video with his band Conversing with Oceans. They didn't win, but Alex tried again this year. And he invited a few friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: CONVERSING WITH OCEANS: THE DREAM")

ALEX BONDAREV: My name is Alex Bondarev. I'm a musician in Conversing with Oceans.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: CONVERSING WITH OCEANS: THE DREAM")

CONVERSING WITH OCEANS: (Singing) We were on a rooftop bar in Manhattan.

I'm from the Bronx. And during the day, I work as a dentist. I think there's a rhythm in dentistry. Music plays a different role, but I think you get into a similar flow when you're working on a crown or a cavity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BONDAREV: We were really lucky in the Bronx to have a really strong and supportive music community. And that music community went by the name of the Bronx Underground. And it existed from about 1999 to 2015. And they would hold these shows every month, every other month, sometimes twice a month where they would have these bands of all different genres, all different ages, some touring bands, some local bands and give them a really great audience to play in front of.

And this year, because there was no Bronx Underground and we were kind of putting on local shows at the community, I thought, you know, I have a friend that does sound. I have a friend who does video. 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, if they want, to submit to the Tiny Desk Contest and if not, at the very least, to have a video for themselves.

Within our community, about half of the artists did know about the Tiny Desk Contest, but other people didn't really know. So what I - the way I approached this Tiny Bronx Contest is I sent out a video saying, hey, guys, we're holding a show. It's going to be called the Tiny Bronx Contest. And it's essentially gathering songs for NPR's Tiny Desk Contest. We had 12 artists make videos. And we had artists that were from all over the Bronx Underground and actually outside of the Bronx as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: BRYAN DURIEUX (SONG 1)")

BRYAN DURIEUX: This first one's called "Let Me Live." I hope you guys like it.

BONDAREV: So Bryan Durieux, he is just super soulful. He sounds like a combination of Marvin Gaye and Usher and just has one of the smoothest and most technical singing and playing styles I've ever heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: BRYAN DURIEUX (SONG 1)")

DURIEUX: (Singing) Haters say the darnedest things. Don't know left from right but know the trouble lies can bring. They only see...

BONDAREV: Baychester Blues is our drummer, Danny's, other band. So he has a jam progressive-rock band.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: BAYCHESTER BLUES (SONG 1)")

BONDAREV: They were packing out this bar in City Island almost every weekend. And I caught them. And I was just blown away because they captivate the audience with very few words. This project actually really, really surprised me because I didn't know if anybody would show up and want to play. But it was great to see where 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. I think it's easier to do things in your community than I thought.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Alex Bondarev from Conversing with Oceans.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TINY BRONX CONTEST: BAYCHESTER BLUES (SONG 1)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.