Skip to content
  • Decades later, the clave beat goes on for Latin jazz and Jewish musicians

    The New York Times - 03/21/2014

    Sometime in the late 1940s, two young Latin musicians in New York, Joe Loco and Tito Puente, sat down to compose songs for a new album by the bandleader Pupi Campo. Mostly, they wrote in a language and style intended for the city’s postwar wave of Cuban and Puerto Rican newcomers, the obvious audience.

    The title for one tune, though, combined a Caribbean dance with a Yiddish suffix, albeit slightly misspelled: “Mambonick.” As both Mr. Puente and Mr. Loco knew, the young Jewish dancers who thronged to Latin music clubs had coined the phrase and wore its hybrid handle with pride.

    “Why did we follow the mambo?” said Larry Harlow, a child of Jewish Brooklyn who began hearing and playing Latin music in his teens, more than 60 years ago. “Because the girls followed the mambo. And we followed the girls. And if you didn’t know how to dance, they wouldn’t look at you.”

    From such a utilitarian motive grew a phenomenon of cultural cross-pollination between Jews and Hispanics in the world of Latin music. What began in part with a kind of transaction — Jewish fans seeing the Hispanic musicians as alluringly exotic, and those musicians in turn marketing their product to Jews — evolved into a deeper and more enduring artistic partnership.