This past Thursday it was New York's pride and pleasure to finally host the 7th Anuual Latin Grammys at Madison Square Garden. To almost no one's surprise, that Lebanese-Colombian bombast of bursting sexual energy, Shakira, shook those hips onstage and shimmied away with both the Record of the Year and Album of the Year. What’s more surprising is that it took the Latin Grammys so long to finally make it to our city, which many musicologists rightly consider the birthplace of Latin muscial styles such as Mambo.
At the turn of last century, East Harlem was the locus point for the burgeoning Italian immigration scene — mostly emigrating from Southern Italy and Sicily. In the 1920s and early 30s, prior to his spectacular run as Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia represented Italian Harlem in Congress. But the decimation of the Italian population during World War II, as well as the general assimilation into American culture and migration to the suburbs left the neighborhood ripe for the boatloads of Latino immigrants flooding the shores during the late 40s into the 50s. Most of these new New Yorkers came from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. With them came new culture, new foods, new religions and new sounds. Mambo can be traced to a pair of brothers in Cuba: Orestes and Cachao Lopez wrote a song called "Mambo" in 1938. The word means "conversation with the gods" and is also the name of a priestess in Haitian Voodoo. One can follow the lineage all the way back to African slaves who were imported into the Caribbean by the French colonizers in the 1800s and who mixed race with the Haitian natives. The original "Mambo" song was an amalgamation of the traditional European social dances (of various French, German and English traditions) but undercut with African rhythms. Orestes played the cello, Cachao played the bass and their orchestra struck up the first song to be considered a Mambo. However, Mambos cannot be music alone.
A decade later, another Cuban musician called Perez Prado emigrated from Cuba to Mexico and then New York, where he aggressively marketed his new moves: the Mambo dance. The Mambo can be danced in two separate styles — the single and the triple (sometimes called the double mambo); the former dance is the more traditional move, the latter is considered the predecessor to the cha cha cha. The moves took off like the hot new commodity that they were, and ballrooms throughout NYC began featuring mambo nights, most notably the Palladium Ballroom on Broadway near Times Square. Mambo could even be considered a catalyst for the rock and roll revolution, which followed shortly on the heels of its success. Famous Mambo players and dancers included Augie and Margo Rodrieguez, the Mambo Aces, Killer Joe Piro, and, of course, Tito Puente. In the heat of the live concert, all the audience were of one color: Afro-Americans from right across Fifth Avenue, Jews from the Lower East Side, Wasps from the Upper West Side and whatever leftover Italians were still in the neighborhood.
In 1954, the cha cha cha, an easier dance to move to with a more ferocious beat dethroned the mambo, and from there, mambo took a backbeat to salsa, merengue, pachanga and the boogaloo. There was a brief revival for the mambo in the mid-90s with “Mambo No. 5,” sung by Lou Bega but an original tune by Prado. Nowadays, as long as the music is thumping, anywhere in the city, the kids will dance.
Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys' Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.