Standing on the Corner Is a Music Collective That Won’t Be Pinned Down
The Brooklyn group, led by Gio Escobar, has been making experimental music — and much more — since 2016.
On a Wednesday evening in early March, eight people sat in a half-circle at Performance Space New York in Manhattan’s East Village, wiping their ears with alcohol pads.
On a tiny stage, Gio Escobar of the Brooklyn-based experimental music collective Standing on the Corner began plinking out shimmery peals of melody on a vibraphone, while a Moog synthesizer filled the room with a warm thrum. Two acupuncturists quietly circulated among the seated participants, applying needles to their ears.
Welcome to “drone acupuncture” as administered at the “Taíno Needle Science Institute: Electric Works Laboratory,” organized by Standing on the Corner as part of an installation that opened in February (and continues through June 30). Each week, Escobar and a fellow musician deliver their version of sound healing: minimalist compositions for the liver, kidneys, lungs and heart, performed in front of a wall of 17 video monitors displaying camera angles of everyone in the room
“Typically surveillance has been one of the weapons that’s been used against us Black and brown people and movements on the left,” Escobar said in an interview after the clinic that night, explaining how the project aimed to flip the cameras into instruments capturing healing.
Escobar sported wraparound sunglasses and a flowing mane that fell onto the shoulders of a sweater bearing a knitted image of Che Guevara. He was speaking in the clinic room, surrounded by décor that he had curated, including paintings of icons of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement like Lolita Lebrón.
The Taíno Needle Science Institute is part of what Escobar calls a “guerrilla academy,” and the institute’s schedule reads like a revolutionary reboot of the Learning Annex: “chair yoga” sessions led by Margarita Pietri, the widow of the Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri; a performance by the Harlem proto-hip-hop pioneers the Last Poets; lectures like “Survival Underground” with former members of the Young Lords and Black Panthers. Like many of the group’s events, all of the programs are free with an online R.S.V.P.
Standing on the Corner has been one of New York City’s most consistently compelling musical projects over the last half decade, but in practice it’s as much a D.I.Y. community organization-cum-conceptual art project as a band. The genre-blurring group has morphed through a dizzying variety of iterations, touching on hip-hop, jazz, funk and spoken word. Since the 2019 departure of Jasper Marsalis (a founding member who now records as Slauson Malone), Escobar has been the band’s only constant, using a shifting pool of musicians.
“Anybody who participates in the meeting of a goal,” he said, “is a member of the ensemble.”
In effect, Standing on the Corner is whatever Escobar deems it at any given moment, in whatever medium the cultural polymath chooses to work. He directs avant-garde short films and designs the graphics for the group’s fliers and merchandise. He hosts the monthly “Puerto Rican Rumble Rock Radio Offensive” show on WKCR-FM, where he creates dubbed-out versions of salsa and Latin soul classics. His first museum exhibition, “Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers,” opens June 1 at MoMA PS1; it features pianos representing African diasporic orishas, or spirits, modified with symbolic objects to affect their sound.
Standing on the Corner has also produced tracks by Earl Sweatshirt, Mike, Danny Brown and Solange (with whom Escobar has been frequently photographed). Last month it performed as a Pentecostal garage-punk quintet, playing a live score to DeeDee Halleck’s 1980 documentary “Bronx Baptism” at BAM’s Unseen Nuyorican Pictures event as part of the Solange-curated “Eldorado Ballroom” series.
Prepandemic, Standing on the Corner gigs were often announced via same-day Instagram stories and rarely featured the same musicians or even the same configuration — the group might be a 30-plus-member chamber jazz orchestra or a free jazz organ trio. Over the last year, the group has often materialized as the trio of Escobar on organ, the bassist Brandon Lopez and the drummer Buz Donald. (The group will appear at the Knockdown Center in Queens on Saturday, on a bill with Makaya McCraven, Laraaji and Liv.e.)
Escobar’s preferred instrument is the organ, though he doesn’t have a formal music academy background. “In a certain sense that’s what makes it better,” said Lopez, himself an in-demand collaborator in New York’s jazz and improvised music community. “Gio has a good way of striking a balance between really having his own thing and then at the same time, leaving it open enough for people like me and Buz to really stretch and go for it. That’s where music exists. It’s a sensual thing, not a technical discussion.”
The idea for Taíno Needle Science first arose around three years ago, Escobar said, while he was planning a music program (ultimately unrealized) for the Rikers Island jail complex. Compiling a reading list, he drew inspiration from prison intellectuals like George Jackson, and learned about Mutulu Shakur, who codeveloped a system of ear acupuncture known as the NADA Protocol at Lincoln Detox Center in the South Bronx in the 1970s to treat heroin addiction.
“The idea was how can we take this revolutionary medicine and update it to what’s plaguing us presently?” Escobar said. “How can we treat the new plagues, the new addictions, not just drugs but also technology?”
This question ties into the broader inquiries underlying Escobar’s art. “I’m just trying to reconsider or pose questions about what it means to be a performing artist in America in a group that is comprised of Black and Puerto Rican membership,” he said. “What does it really mean to engage with your audience? What are the implications of that?”
Escobar, now in his late 20s, grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, playing instruments in church, but drifted away from music until coming up with a collection of tunes as he was completing a degree in journalism and design. A group gradually formed, originally called Children of the Corner in homage to the 1990s Harlem rap collective Children of the Corn. Its first two albums, a self-titled debut in 2016 and “Red Burns” the following year, were released independently on limited edition vinyl.
The group signed to XL Recordings in 2018 but has yet to release an album for the label. “The way in which most people engage with music is to record it and release it and make a product,” Escobar said. “I do struggle with this notion of what it means to make a product and what that does to the meaning of performance. Once a tune is recorded, it’s definite, it becomes actualized and concrete, and to me that’s really complicated.”
Escobar’s compositions are “written in his own way,” said Caleb Giles, a multi-instrumentalist, rapper and rotating member of the troupe since 2016. “A lot of it is in his head. He’ll come to rehearsal and just sing all the parts for 10 or 12 songs. At one point he was writing things down in a little notebook, and he’d show us the shorthand he’d written and have us figure it out.”
The ensemble’s power, Giles said, stems from its friendships and energy. “That is at the core of the power of the music: true joy, true friendship, true companionship, camaraderie, sisterhood, brotherhood,” he said. “That’s what people hear.”
The director Melvin Van Peebles — known for his 1971 independent feature “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” — who also released almost a dozen albums, is a source of inspiration. (Van Peebles appeared in the video for Standing on the Corner’s 2020 single “Angel,” and Escobar said they became dinner companions until Van Peebles’s 2021 death.) Like Standing on the Corner’s recordings, Van Peebles’s music featured a woozy, off-kilter vibe replete with sped-up voices, theatrical characters and a delivery derived from the dramatic German tradition of Sprechgesang.
“So much of what he conveyed there successfully, I think we also sought to convey — that point of fugivity, of making things that can’t be pinned down to any sort of essence,” Escobar said.
That concept of “fugivity” is crucial, Escobar said, and is also reflected in the Taíno Needle Science Institute. “A lot of this information comes directly from the prisons,” he added, “from people who, even in their imprisonment, refuse to be shackled, refuse to be caught. I think that’s essential to me and to Standing on the Corner, this idea that we can’t be caught.”