The streets are her territory, the casual passerby her captivated audience. 
We met her at midnight, when we were going for ice cream at Columbus Circle. We could hear them a block away from their location. Curiosity attracted us. It seemed to us totally unusual, in the heart of Manhattan. There, on Broadway, across from Lincoln Center, we saw her for the first time. At first it seemed to us only a group of percussionists who, covered by a salsa DJ, discharged with more or less dexterity on their worn instruments. In the middle of the sidewalk, some stopped, mostly Latinos. One pointed out, she is not a Latina, and she is not a rebellious teenager. Her performance with the bell and the bongo really separated her from the rest of the performers who accompanied her. This blond-haired American, with her mid-skirt trimmed to the point of highlighting a beautiful silhouette, with a low tilt Panama hat, who danced and played with a swing of the best percussionists, changed the night's plan. We went quickly for the ice cream and came back to be their audience that night. We wanted to wait for her, we wanted to meet her.

—¿Why the Bongo?

It´s almost a poetically-based question, almost intuitively-based, for me. I don´t know how universal what I went through is, but I think that in the sense that people are born sometimes into situations that are… you´re born into an enemy camp. And you have no chance. I was born into what I perceive as Auschwitz.
My father was a Julliard graduate, played the classical violin. He was a child prodigy at three and was the youngest student to go into the Julliard at that time. He ended up trying to be a great violinist in his day. He had two nervous breakdowns by the time he was twenty, as I understand it. One of them took place at Carnegie Hall where, during a recital, he played the same passage over and over again.
So these breakdowns were major traumas. He then experienced what´s called untreated psychosis; he never had therapy to treat this incredible failure in his mind. They did not do that in those days. He was actually excellent, he played Gerswhin´s Porgy and Bess when it first premiered, but he wasn´t the artist he was supposed to be in his mind, and he ended up being a violinist playing music for parties and in restaurants - very neurotic, hating everything, everybody. To him everyone was no good, mediocre, except for a few great violinists of his day, whom he had wanted to be.
When I was born, the anger and the jealousy were there from the first day towards me as an infant because suddenly his untreated narcissism was challenged. When I was three months old, he said to my mother, who did not have her own internal identity, “If you leave I will take the baby.” So she was terrified from that moment on and felt completely helpless. Everything from then on was centered around him, a dictatorship.
When I was born, my birth name was Gina Green, but when I was around three, he, my mother, younger sister and I, were living in San Francisco and he was trying to make a living as a gypsy violinist. He felt his name, Robert Green, was not good enough, wasn´t exotic enough. So he decided, and this is an essentially important part of me, he decided to take my name, Gina, and name himself that, which makes no sense, it´s a woman’s name. And from then on he was Gina and I was not. Gina and his violin, he called himself. He renamed me Mimi for no reason I knew. The mail kept coming to someone named Robert Gina, so eventually Gina became the shared family last name. At that formative age, when he took my name and gave it to himself, I began to struggle with a sense that I did not exist or had the right to.
There are many incidents, but I just want to give you a framework, because it will bring you to who I am. I went to him when I was six or seven, I remember clearly showing him my handwriting. I had just learned script. I said, “Here is an A in script, not block.” He said to me, “I did that a year earlier than you and I did it better.” These are like milestones that I remember. And this might help other people because you can struggle out from under incredible boulders.
I began to have rashes from ten to fourteen. I was covered in rashes and I had to have wet compresses day and night, on my arms and behind my legs and on my ankles because of the stress. I was taken out of school for a time because I had to be in wet compresses 24/7.
I showed musical talent, which is like a Jew dancing in Auschwitz. So what you do to that prisoner? You take that away. You tell them they´re horrible, you tell them that only Julliard people can play, and you never let them touch an instrument, ever. And if they do play, you walk out of the room. And if they do play anyway, you tell them they are not allowed to make a mistake. You just find every way possible to paralyze them.
We got a piano once. It felt like a meal. I taught myself to play something, Saint-Saens’ The Swan. I didn´t know how to read music, but I knew where middle C was, and I taught myself The Swan. The piano was taken out of the house.
In America you have grades one through six from six to twelve years old. You´re in a class with lots of children and you all collectively get to do dancing and singing. Then you go to junior high and you have six different classes, with six different teachers. On the first day of junior high, I´m twelve, the only time my father ever went to school, on the first day, he went to the principal´s office and told the principal, “She´s not allowed to take any music classes, ever.” The principal said, “Am I hearing you right”? “Yes, she´s not allowed.” From then on I was deeply traumatized.
I´ve never been in a music class, till now, in my whole life. I can´t walk into an auditorium or music class, high school, junior high, nothing, and without… deep trauma. This is a Mimi story.
I had to play something. I wasn´t allowed to play an instrument, so I invented a drumset. I would stack small piles of books. Different book piles made different sounds. One pile was my “snare” drum, another, my “tom tom.” And someone had given me a pair of thick ROTC drumsticks. And I made my first cymbal, which was a Mexican hat with fringe on it that I stuck onto a TV antennae, an old fashioned standing antenna. And I played it. When the fringe was on top, it was a sizzle cymbal; if I turned it over, it was just a plain cymbal. And I started to play in my room by myself, to jazz.
And I saw a movie called Black Orpheus and I was completely taken. I saw it when I was twelve. There is a particular part in the middle where Orpheus is looking for his girl and he goes to an Afro-Brazilian religious ritual and, I don´t know, it spoke to me; there is something from ancestors, or something in me. I couldn’t act on it, I couldn´t take lessons. But I slowly began to teach myself percussion.
Twice I´ve gone through huge depressions, huge. I call them the black holes. Where I have gotten to the point where nothing means anything, a horrible existential place, where you face the fact that even the sun will explode one day and everything is dust. But I know now that these feelings were based on… as a child, having no cherishment, nothing. Just don´t be here. And the name being taken - that puts you into a void, without an anchor of any kind. The only thing that saved me, that meant anything, the only thing I could think of, was percussion; it´s the only thing that felt real for me. That is the indelible connection for me.
You ask why the bongos? Before my little pretend drumset, I had the bongos, because my father had orchestras. Of course I wasn´t allowed to touch anything, but he didn´t miss them, thank goodness, and I had this little pair of bongos, and I would play. I always thought that because the bongos were the only thing I could get my hands on, that they were then illegitimate. I couldn´t see them as musical. It´s like saying, this canteen of water is saving me, but it is just a canteen.
I taught myself the drums, what is called the traps, the drumset. I played funk and fusion, jazz, and R and B in black clubs. I played with the guitarist, Gabor Szabo, for six months, which is a long time with a big star, but I didn´t have the facility to really keep it up, because I didn´t have what is called “chops.” I didn´t have enough training. When I wasn´t with that band anymore, I ended up playing Dixieland music on the streets in San Francisco, which is completely different from funk or fusion or jazz or anything. San Francisco is known for Dixieland. I started to get recognized. I started to make jokes, funny jokes. I started to talk to people and entertain. And began to organize my own bands, playing all kinds of music – Mimi Gina and her Men. I reached a kind of celebrity in San Francisco, playing major hotels and parties and did that for almost 20 years.
But the pain that accompanied making music was always with me and midlife I stopped playing completely. In 2001, a friend took me to the Copa in New York and I saw all these people dancing on a Tuesday night. I didn´t know how to dance salsa, or anything, but that night hit something that took me way back into Black Orpheus again, and my first playing on the bongos. It reconnected me with something inside that´s always been irresistibly seductive in AfroCuban music for me. And that started me on a path of taking some salsa dance lessons and that eventually led me to buying congas and bongos.
But the main thing is the campana. That has come up in the last two years, I don´t know why, but there is something, and I say this with humility, where I seem to understand what´s underneath in that bell, and I was actually offered a job because of the bell, but you have to play bongos too, so I started to take lessons on the bongos.
All I want to be around now is with the people who I love and who love me, who want me to play the campana, that´s what I want, that´s where I want to play.

—If you play the campana, you have to play the bongos.

Yes. That´s why it´s so important and poetic to me that you asked that question: Why  the bongos? Because I´m going back, ironically, to the instrument that I thought I played because it was the only thing that was accessible. But, in a strange way, it´s what I have a feel for, and, now, I’m on my baby bongos again and I´m like 10 years old. And I´m able now to say as little Gina, “You´re not going to take them away, you are not going to take me out of class, it is OK to make mistakes, and I don’t care if you walk out of the room.”
I wrote a poem called The Fighter. I have been in the ring, I know the punches, I´m no longer the punching bag. I have the courage to say I am a musician, this is what I do, this is what I love to do and want to share, and I have a feel for some unknown reason for this particular genre.
There are all kinds of idiosyncrasies, little things in the bongos, that I know I will be satisfied by aesthetically, so the bongos have a deep expression musically which I had never thought was there in them. To play the campana and bongo is to have the freedom to finally express through the music I hear.

After a couple of meetings, we say goodbye at La Marqueta, a place in the Spanish barrio where she feels like a fish in water. The music is deafening, she does not stop dancing. In the distance, playing the bell, moving her feet, she tells us with her eyes that she is saved.  
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