World & Latin

¡Oy Caramba!


In the 1950s, the mambo and other strains of Latin dance music were hugely popular among Jewish Americans, especially those in New York. This unlikely phenomenon prompted a handful of Latin artists -- Ray Barretto, Willie Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, Clark Terry and Doc Cheatham -- to take the cross-cultural experiment a step farther by recording traditional Yiddish and Hebrew music with cha-chas, meringues and other Latin dance rhythms. Operating under the fictitious band name of Juan Calle and His Latin Lanztmen, the group released Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos on the Riverside label in 1961. The album was remastered by the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation and re-released on Concord this past August.

Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos takes traditional -- and sometimes somber -- melodies and turns up the juice, with the help of the lively rhythms churning underneath. Driving congas are at the heart of "O Momme," while "Papirossen," the classic Yiddish ode to a cigarette peddler, is reconfigured here as a high-energy mambo. And Jewish or not, you've probably never heard "Havah Nagila" quite the way it's captured here.

In conjunction with the re-release of the album, the Idelsohn Society also staged a free outdoor performance of the recording in its entirety -- a sort of Yiddish Woodstock -- at New York's Lincoln Center that same month. Led by Arturo O'Farrill and His Afro-Cuban Sextet, the concert lineup included Larry Harlow, Andy Gonzalez of the Fort Apache Band and 94-year-old keyboardist Irving Fields, founder of the Bagels and Bongos trio that rode the original wave of Jewish-Latin music in the '50s.

Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos reopens a little known but fascinating chapter in post-WWII ethno-musical history.

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