Back in the 1950s, when the mambo was the rage, some of its biggest fans were Jewish. Reporter Marlon Bishop brings us this story of a community still keeping the beat after all these years.
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Marlon is a radio producer, writer, and reporter based in New York. His work is focused on music, Latin America, New York City and the arts, and has appeared in several public radio outlets such as WNYC News, Studio 360, The World and NPR News. He is an Associate Producer at Afropop Worldwide and a staff writer for MTV Iggy.
Check out these tunes by many other Mambonicks:
Iriving Fields, “Miami Beach Rhumba” (1947)
Pianist Irving Fields grew up acting on the Yiddish stage in 1920s Jewish Brooklyn, and became a major performer on the Catskills circuit. As a young performer, he hopped a cruise ship to pre-revolutionary Cuba and returned determined to bring Latin music into his act. His first big hit was 1947’s “Miami Beach Rhumba,” which was covered by bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and Tito Puente. Fields went on to produce “Bagels and Bongos,” mixing Latin rhythms with Yiddish standards.
Alfredito Levy, “Goofus Mambo” (1953)
Al “Alfredito” Levy was the first significant Jewish mambo bandleader in New York City. He began as a percussionist gigging with bands like Joe Quijano and Tito Puente, and eventually came to lead his own orchestra, putting out novelty mambo hits like the “Chinese Cha Cha Cha,” the “Crazy Stalin Mambo,” and the “Goofus Mambo.”
Juan Calle and his Latin Lantzmen, “Bublitchi Baigelach” (1961)
In a nod to the Jewish-Mambo connection, Latin stars Ray Baretto, Charlie Palmieri and Willie Rodriguez teamed up with top jazz players to put out a peculiar album titled “Mazel Tov Mis Amigos” under the name Juan Calle and his Latin Lantzmen, an imaginary Latin-Jewish supergroup. The album mixes Yiddish tunes with Latin Jazz — and serious instrumental chops from the all-star lineup.
Larry Harlow, “Arsenio” (1971)
Bandleader Larry Harlow is the Brooklyn-born Mambonik who took his Latin music obsession the farthest, eventually becoming one of the principal salsa bandleaders of the 1970s on the Fania label, nicknamed “El Judio Maravilloso” (“The Marvelous Jew”). Harlow (who is also a converted santeria priest) didn’t often address Jewish themes in his music however. One of his hits was “Arsenio,” a tribute to Cuban innovator Arsenio Rodriguez.