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New Amsterdam Musical Association

Tucked away in the basement of an unassuming brownstone on 130th Street is an exhilarating find for Harlem’s music aficionados. Every Monday, the New Amsterdam Musical Association holds open mic nights, where anyone is welcome to join in and perform. When the Manhattan Sideways team and I visited during the summer of 2017, we witnessed everything from original pieces written by up-and-coming singers to spoken word poetry to jazz played on a hodgepodge of instruments. In short, everyone with a talent or passion is welcome and encouraged to share their art at these jam sessions. The atmosphere is laid back and fun, helped along by the charismatic presenter’s boundless enthusiasm as he announces each act. “This is the way to enjoy a Monday, ” he shouted, to the roaring approval of the assembled audience. We were frequently invited to respond to and interact with the performers, either through singing along to a chorus or participating in a call-and-response chant. It was easy to get caught up in the energy of the performers. As I watched, one of the jazz players asked if there was a singer in the house. Without hesitating, a young man who had just moved to the city from Texas jumped up and improvised some lyrics to a blues song as the makeshift band behind him free-styled along. It was fantastic to witness a group of people of different ages and backgrounds who have never met before come together for the simple pleasure of creating something for everyone to enjoy. As I chatted with some of the people around me, I learned that NAMA provides an ideal platform for aspiring artists to practice in front of a non-threatening public, while more experienced artists still view it as a chance to experiment with their craft, knowing they will never be received with anything less than cheers and approval. We were lucky enough to witness one of these experiments: one performer tried out ways to “mix art forms” by reciting a poem that transitioned into snippets of songs, all with the accompaniment of the jazz band. The presenter’s response to her performance summed it up perfectly for me: “Every time you come to NAMA, you’re making history, because this place itself is history. ” A banner draped above the stage declares that NAMA was established in 1904, making it the oldest African American musical organization in the US. Pieces of its distinguished history are proudly displayed on the walls, including framed newspaper articles that feature NAMA and pictures of past performers, which include the likes of John Coltrane and Max Roach. The Association was created to fill a gap during a time when black musicians were denied performance opportunities or entry into American musical institutions, and it has since upheld the tradition of promoting African American artistry. Open mic nights are only one aspect of what the New Amsterdam Musical Association does. It also has an affiliated music school, where anyone can take vocal or instrumental lessons free of charge, regardless of age or skill level. Through this and their ongoing events, the organization hopes to foster an appreciation for music and its importance in creating and uniting a community.

More places on 125th Street

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Harlem Underground

“People gravitate towards Harlem, ” said Leon Ellis, the accomplished entrepreneur behind Harlem Underground. Leon Ellis grew up on the island of Jamaica and went to college in Alabama. He would often stay in New York over the summers as he sold Black history books door to door to pay for his education. Upon graduating, he chose to remain in Harlem permanently and embark on a bevy of intriguing business ventures throughout the 1990s, including a gaming store, Emily’s — a restaurant named after his mother — and a barbecue joint named for his father. Today, his clothing shop is surrounded by two newer ventures: Chocolat, a full-service restaurant, and Ganache Cafe, a coffee shop. His projects as a restaurateur aside, Leon felt that he wanted to “spread the word about Harlem all over the world. ” With the neighborhood already a recognizable name, when Leon would travel outside the city dressed in Harlem gear, many people wanted to know where he purchased his clothing. Thus, Harlem Underground began with a mission: “We look to create an image or projection of what Harlem is — its music, its culture, its people. ”The shop hires local designers to create merchandise that revolves around the “raw theme of Harlem NYC. ” To Leon, this is the essence of his success. “Our resources are developed here, and we expend those resources here. We embrace the Harlem community, and we believe it embraces us. ”(Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after years of operating on 125th Street, Harlem Underground consolidated its locations and now remains open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. )

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Oasis Jimma Juice Bar

Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has moved to 3163 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. As we enjoyed a nutritious quinoa and vegetable bowl and a "Times Square" smoothie, Abdusalam, the owner of Oasis, was kind enough to sit down with the Manhattan Sideways team and share his story. He was born in Ethiopia, “the birthplace of coffee, ” and grew up on his family’s farm. His view of food as essential to health was shaped early on by his parents, as his father had a holistic clinic that used what their farm produced to help the community and provide adequate nutrition. His mother would cook for the visiting patients, and she taught Abdusalam to do the same — even though it was uncommon for boys to learn to cook in Ethiopia. After his father’s passing, Abdusalam left home at 14 and entered the mining industry to make a living. It was quite a change from his upbringing, he confessed, since he went from a farm where food was fresh and readily available to an area where both food and water were scarce. In retrospect, he realized that this is where his troubles with nutrition began, as it was the first in a long string of environments where he had little to no access to healthy foods. Even so, he drew on his mother’s teachings and chose to become the cook for the other miners. He retained this position until the outbreak of war forced him to flee the country and join a refugee camp in Kenya, which suffered from a scarcity of resources. It was during his stay at the camp that he was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that played a large role in reshaping his understanding of food. Abdusalam faced many trials upon emigrating to the US in 2004. When he arrived in Harlem, he was broke and did not speak any English. Language was not the only new element he had to adapt to: he was astonished by American food. Living in refugee camps and traveling across the Middle East left him malnourished, and he admitted that, “supermarkets looked like heaven to me. ” But the most shocking aspect for him was not the abundance of food, but rather its high fat content and overly processed nature. “I didn’t know food was unsafe. In my country, food is safe, and if we don’t have it, we don’t have it. ” He was struggling to provide for himself and his family by working three jobs, so fast food and other cheap, unhealthy options were the most convenient for him. With time, he developed increasing health complications as a result of his poor diet, heavy workload and diabetes. To combat these, he began researching nutrition and wellness, which eventually led to the decision to eliminate all processed foods from his diet. He quickly saw what a positive impact this made for him and his overall wellbeing. These results motivated Abdusalam to open his first juice store on 125th Street in November 2012, where he could impart his philosophy about food to others. “It’s not about business for me, it’s about sharing my idea that food should be good, affordable, healthy and delicious. ” To aid in this goal, the walls of his shop are covered in facts about food and tips for healthy eating. Since its opening, according to Abdusalam, Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has become one of the top five juice bars in the city. Inspired by this success, in 2017 he opened another location on 139th Street, in his own neighborhood, to continue providing Harlem with access to better options. His passion for his mission was obvious. “People should learn about food — how to eat, how to cook, how to buy, ” he insisted. When we visited during the summer of 2017, Abdusalam told us that he was in the process of opening the Oasis Power House on 139th Street. His plan is for this to function as a “no judgment zone” where people will be encouraged to teach their particular talents and passions to anyone who wants to learn them. He envisions it as a space where those who are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives can find it by sharing what they love with others, be it piano lessons, arts and crafts, writing, or any other skill. Abdusalam hopes to continue giving back to Harlem, his adopted community, by sharing his story and ensuring that others can learn from and be inspired by his life experiences.