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Dimensions in Music: A Field Guide to the Mambo World

Celebrations continue in NYC’s Latin music world, though industry downturns have hit hard at Latin’s magic meld of live music and dancers. Spanish Harlem Orchestra recently played Lincoln Center Out of Doors, while August found percussion maven Bobby Sanabria’s big band at Jazz Standard, and an Arturo O’Farrill combo at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola—both venues without dance floors. (Sanabria reopens Art D’Lugoff’s Salsa Meets Jazz series on the 13th at Le Poisson Rouge with conguero Candido and trumpeter Jon Faddis, and O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra plays Symphony Space on Halloween.) Latin touts its roots avidly and adamantly, and a Lincoln Center summer tribute hailed Graciela, the gruffly charismatic singer with Machito’s mambo-era Afro-Cubans. Nueva Generacion led the evening with rumba, before Jose Alberto’s tight salsa band ushered in the star, resplendent in a red dress at age ninety-three. And rumba, that jugular influence in Latin’s rhythm spectrum, was at the fore for a June tribute to the late conguero Anga Diaz at Jazz Gallery, kick-started by Pedro Martinez’s white-clad Cuban percussion team, spurred by the killin’ jazz drummer Dafnis Prieto.

<i>Gloria Cook and Vincent Livelli, Rumba Casino, 1938.</i>
Gloria Cook and Vincent Livelli, Rumba Casino, 1938.

Another 2008 highlight was the April re-creation of the 1958 Machito record Kenya, by Sanabria’s scintillating Manhattan School of Music orchestra. The full house lived that mambo fervor, steered to ecstasy by the leader’s lusty, edifying panache. In liner notes for Sanabria’s Big Band Urban Folktales, Yale mambo maven Robert Farris Thompson specifies that mambo gives its name to salsa’s wild improv section, “where bass, tumba [conga], and piano start cycling in tiny interlocking riffs called guajeos.” Given space, dancers will demand partnership in the action. On the salsa tip, Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, the blazing mid-1960s rivals to Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta, played MSG’s WaMu theater last month, and on October 11, Palmieri rules at Lehman College in th’ Bronx, with conguero Giovanni Hidalgo and the Tito Puente alums.

Much Latin power now resides in jazz—check Dafnis Prieto’s Taking the Soul for a Walk, and O’Farrill’s Song for Chico—but trends towards concert music. Veteran rumbero Vincent Livelli feels that, in the 1940s, dancers already suspected that shift as Machito’s music director Mario Bauza wrote fusion over Cuban fundaments. “They had come to dance, not to stumble over Latin jazz,” Livelli writes on his blog ( But jazz ain’t always a wet blanket for dance, as Folklore Urbano displayed at their July gig at the Museo del Barrio, mating snaky horn passages to the pelvic compulsion of Colombian rhythms, with leader Pablo Mayor’s piano as the binding sinew. FU’s new disc hits soon on Chonta Records, and they’ll headline the annual fest of Colombian culture in spring.

A year’s highlight was the resurgence of Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino. Grupo’s 1970s discs fused Cuban masters and Puerto Rican players who’d helmed classic outfits: the Fort Apache Band and Conjunto Libre (Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, Manny Oquendo), the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (pianist Oscar Hernandez). Reformed for a Berlin date last autumn, Grupo’s on home turf on November 1 at Hostos College. Two words to the wise: Be there. Though their rumba singer Puntilla Rios died days before his band opened Lincoln Center’s Graciela tribute, Grupo’s producer, Rene López, said on the phone that Pedro Martinez was aboard, and that Eddie Palmieri will guest, putting salsa’s mad maestro on stage again with Grupo’s timbalero, Manny Oqeundo. That pair was at the core as La Perfecta scorched the annals as an unsurpassed music act of the 1960s.

On June 28, Grupo played the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, site of their public debut in 1976. On the band bus, one original member, percussionist Gene Golden, said that the rumba style yambu had been a litmus test for Cuban master Julito Collazo. “Ask them to play slow,” Collazo would say of the flash rumberos. “They can’t do it.” Tres guitarist Nelson Gonzalez flew up from the Celia Cruz revue in Miami, and said that “Grupo Folklorico has never ‘rehearsed.’” The crowded Folklife tent got steamrolled: the hurtling “Anabacoa” (an Arsenio Rodriguez staple), “El Elemento del Bronx,” and the lilting “Canto Ebioso,” spotlighting Puntilla’s rumba authority.

In a phone interview, Robert Farris Thompson said the mambo history he’s writing argues that it’s “the most upbeat of all musics: kong-KING-kong, king; kong-KING-kong, king. Continuous, and indestructible.” A Newsweek piece in late February outlines Thompson’s mambo devotion, and his cultural mileposts are acute. He saw Jack Kerouac drum to Cal Tjader on an overturned trash can at a Bay Area party, and in Thompson’s view, “the most ecstatic pages of On the Road are the mambo pages.” His initial interview with Perez Prado in 1955 followed a double bill with laid-back crooner Chet Baker, “and I thought, ‘My God, this guy’s going to go to sleep.’ Then: ‘And now ladies and gentlemen: Perez Prado.’ Bomp-do-kiddie-bonk-da…a complete contrast.” This summer’s field work took Thomspon to Mexico City, focused on a “highly uncooperative” Prado ex, and “a couple of guys from the big band of ’49, ’50, ‘51, the classic Prado mambo.”

Thompson interviewed “Cachao” Lopez for years before the bassist and bandleader’s death in late March. With his brother Orestes, Cachao had fashioned mambo’s compositional architecture (his day job? principal contrabassist with the Havana Philharmonic). When Thompson canceled the Chubb Fellowship conference, dinner, and concert that had been organized to honor the maestro in April, he mused that “it would have been one of the thrills of my life.” His sole interview with Orestes Lopez, in a one-room apartment near the Hotel Nacional in Havana, had Orestes essaying his visitor from an upright piano. “I videoed him playing one mambo after another. I forgot all the rules of proper documentation and started shouting, ‘Mambo! Mambo!’”

On his return from an early 1960s fellowship with the Yoruba in Nigeria, Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta was blasting the Palladium with its two-trombone frontline. The BBC recently called Thompson to interview Palmieri at home. He’d just asked Cachao about improvisatory tumbaos that transformed into early mambos. “It was just two notes,” which Thompson asked Cachao to jot in his notebook. At his piano, Palmieri “instantly three-dimensionalized it, like one of those Japanese paper flowers where you put it in water and they suck up the water and blossom right before you.”

Thompson's recent research has taken him as far afield as Mozambique, and he’ll talk soon with Palladium-era dancers Augie and Margo, of whom he has video “on a roof in Las Vegas, and they do moves based on the tornillo,” one of the earliest mambo steps and one of “the eternal rumba steps. Mambo picks up things from all over the world, but without rumba, it’s unthinkable.”

At eighty-eight, rumbero Vincent Livelli forays out with a minimum in his pockets, as dancers will. Crossing Union Square en route to the Bronx, he said of a passing lady in a summer dress, “I could lift her over my head with one hand.” As a teen in 1937, Livelli learned rumba, bolero, and samba moves upstairs at the Latin mecca, the Park Plaza, and absorbed more at the Audubon Ballroom, the Cabo Rojeno Worker’s Circle, and the Masonic Club on 106th Street. In a recent blog entry, he posits that prize fighters make the best dancers. Watching Sugar Ray Robinson at Roseland, “I saw a graceful, fantastic display from a gladiator, an ultimate gymnast.” A former boxer, Nino “the Great” Yakovino, needing a tall partner for the three-couple troupe he was forming, gave Livelli his professional start. His partner at the Rumba Casino in Long Branch, New Jersey, was Gloria Cook, who’d been Al Jolson’s mistress, and with whom Livelli “danced a duo routine with fast rumba, including lifts. Jimmy Pellechia, the owner of the club, fell in love with her, and gallantly offered me a dance studio in the solarium of his hotel, the Kingsley Arms in Asbury Park, because he broke up my act.”

Livelli was ushered into elegant nightspots—the Versaille, Havana Madrid, La Conga—to engage the clientele’s dates, and got the nonverbal assent of mobster Bugsy Siegel, at the Beachcomber in Miami Beach, to take Virginia Hill for a turn. After the Second World War, he joined Tony and Lucille Colon’s top studio, at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskills. Livelli said in an interview at his Perry Street apartment that in 1948, mambo began “at the Concord, with Jose Curbelo’s orchestra, and everyone at Grossinger’s started to say, ‘What is the mambo?’ It was superior to rumba in that it had a brassy sound that left a little of the African behind.” Livelli taught mambo from then on, “though my heart belonged to rumba, because of the Santeria impact on my psyche.” Later that year, headed up the SS Uruguay’s gangplank to embark on a twenty-year career as a cruise director, he carried Perez Prado’s searing “Mambo No. 5.”


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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