Oy Caramba! Orlando Marin Performs Mambo at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Mambo at the Eldridge Street Synagogue?, you might ask.  Of course!, we’d reply.

On Sunday afternoon, March 8th, we look forward to welcoming Orlando Marin, The Last Mambo King, for a concert in our beautiful landmark venue.  It certainly won’t be the first time he’s played in a synagogue.  “I’ve been blessed,” says Marin, “for all these years the Jewish people have been my best followers and tell me to keep going.”  He’ll do just that when he and his ensemble play classic mambo and salsa, as well as original music from his sixty year career.

During the summer in the 1950s and 60s, bandleader and timbales player Orlando Marin was often in the Catskills, where he and his band had audiences at borscht belt hotels dancing the night away.  Back in the City, it was Jewish New Yorkers who joined his legions of Latin followers at Palladium Ballroom and other popular dance spots.  The Palladium was the home of the Mambo, and visitors in its heyday remember that race, color and creed did not matter – only dancing and music.

But why mambo?  What is it about this music with Afro-Cuban roots that has so appealed to Jews?  Why is there Yiddish Rhumba and Catskills Mambo, and how did it happen that a Latin sensation like Celia Cruz recorded an amazing version of “Hava Nagila”?

There are various theories.  Maybe Gentile music on the radio – think Pat Boone, Doris Day, the Kingston Trio – did not appeal to American Jews, some of whom hadn’t been in this country for very long.  Definitely there was the Catskills connection.  In the days before air conditioning, many Jewish New Yorkers flocked upstate to the “borscht belt” hotels – the Concord, the Laurels, the Pines, Grossinger’s , Brown’s and more – and so did musicians from the City’s dance clubs.  Orlando Marin didn’t remember exactly how it was that he started going up there, but he did remember that everyone – all the popular Latin bands – were there.

Steve Berlin who plays saxophone with the Chicano band Los Lobos has speculated that it’s the distinct minor scale that connects the two cultures. “There’s something about Latin music that sort of connects with the Jewish experience in a really profound way,” Berlin told NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.  They were talking about a 2013 album produced by the Idelsohn Society, It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba, that explores the Latin-Jewish Music connection from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Here’s a quote from the album’s liner notes:

Since the earliest days of the American recording industry, Jews and Latinos have been involved in often parallel, often overlapping musical pursuits:  sharing neighborhoods and radio frequencies, joking in Yiddish and Spanish…bonding over a sometimes mutual, sometimes unequal outsider status.

This 2-CD set was produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation in 2013.

This 2-CD set was produced by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation in 2013.

Josh Kun, co-founder of the Idelsohn Society, comments: “In the 1950s especially, during the mambo craze, American Jews were central to the popularity of Mambo.  They were dancing mambo at the Palladium, dancing in the Catskills.  They became known as mambo-nicks.  They were writing songs with titles about…Mamba Moishe.  It became part of what it meant to be Jewish in mid-century America.”

Bobby Sanabria — Grammy-nominated drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, educator, activist — adds another dimension to the story:  “The Latino community owes a debt of gratitude to the Jewish community for supporting Afro-Cuban dance music in New York City. It is a direct result of several Jewish businessmen who owned clubs, record companies, hotels, and dance halls that the growth of Latin music in NYC occurred. Some were crooks, some were thieves, some were mensches, but they all loved the music. That coupled with the Jewish community’s love of dancing, great music, and liberal thinking when it came to social issues, race, culture, etc. demonstrated how cultures can come together in true harmony.”

On June 7th, these cultures will come together again when the Museum at Eldridge Street expands its signature festival to include not only the arts and culture of our Chinese neighbors, but those of the Puerto Ricans of the Lower East Side as well.  Mark your calendars for our Egg Rolls & Egg Creams — and Empanadas! — Festival!

And be sure to join us for The Last Mambo King with Orlando Marin, Sunday, March 8 at 3pm.  Click here for more information.


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