There's no race, ethnicity or culture that develops in a vacuum, and Jewish-Americans are no exception. Over the next few weeks, Code Switch will be writing about some overlooked cultural interactions that have helped shape what Jewish identity is today.
We begin the series by featuring a conversation that aired on Weekend Edition Saturday looking at an era of music that has largely faded from memory but remains incredibly compelling: Latin-Jewish fusion music in the mid-20th century.
Think mambo lessons in the Jewish summer resorts of the Catskills — real-life Dirty Dancing. Side-splitting "Yiddish rhumba" about Jews falling in love with Cuban culture. Latin musicians playing at bar mitzvahs (and recording fantastic renditions of "Hava Nagila").
In November, The Idelsohn Society For Musical Preservation — an organization dedicated to telling Jewish history through its music — released some of these gems in the form of a double album called It's a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba — which is, fittingly, a phrase my grandmother would probably use to describe a wild party in her youth.
What sparked the musical collision? Some scholars make the argument that Latin music's roots come from North Africa and Jews originating from around those areas can't resist. It's kind of a neat theory: a few seconds of music and clave, and you've got instant hip-shaking.
Jewish saxophonist and producer Steve Berlin of the Chicano band Los Lobos argues the two genres share a distinct minor scale that make them culturally compatible and magnetic. "There's something about Latin music that sort of connects with the Jewish experience in a really profound way," Berlin tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. (Berlin also says that if this were the soundtrack to his Hebrew school experience, he would have never dropped out.)
It's also about the historical context of those decades, says Josh Kun, co-founder of the Idelsohn Society: Vaudeville had just set the stage for multi-ethnic, theatrical performances; Jewish and Latino immigrants rubbed shoulders and shared common spaces in cities like New York.
Included in the album's 44 pages (!) of 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.
"There's the business angle as well — one that's both prickly and nurturing — with Jews running Latin record labels and managing the careers of Latino musicians, and Latin bands hired to play bar mitzvahs, weddings and Catskills hotels."
The album's selection ranges "from the sublime to the ridiculous," Berlin says. Some songs lack are simply novelties, like the Barry Sisters' 1956 song "Channah from Havana," which tells the story of a Jewish man lamenting how his wife is more interested in Cuban culture than with him. It's filled with Yiddish inside jokes and sprinkles only a few Spanish words in the lyrics, and even those don't make sense — one of the lines goes, "She even has her little brother Morris, calling for heise enchiladas," but enchiladas are Mexican not Cuban. Beyond that, the only thing Latin about it is the brassy interludes.
Other songs are masterpieces of musical synergy, like Eydie Gorme, the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, singing fluently in Spanish with the esteemed Trio Los Panchos from Mexico City. Gorme became something of a musical icon in Mexico, Berlin says, "one of the key interpreters of the Latin American popular songbook."
And there's the late Cuban superstar Celia Cruz singing "Hava Nagila" in 1964. That was recorded for Latin music record label Seeco Records — which was founded by a Jewish man in New York, Sidney Siegel.
The compilers of the album say these songs need to be revived to enrich our understanding of the Jewish-American story.
"It became part of what it meant to be Jewish in mid-century American," Kun says. "This is not a kind of anomalous novelty story but really is one that lasts decades and that's buried in the formation of the American Jewish identity. ... They were dancing the mambo at the Palladium, dancing in the Catskills."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a new double album that caught our ears. What can you say about a new release that combines Yiddish rhumba, Catskills mambo, and Perez Prado and Celia Cruz doing "Hava Nagila"? Oy, caramba.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) She don't want no flatfoot floogie. She don't want no floyd floyd. Beat the bongo and the congo. (unintelligible). Oy.
SIMON: "It's a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1980s" is the title of a new collection. It comes from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. The society's co-founder Josh Kun joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
JOSH KUN: Of course. Thank you.
SIMON: And one of the essayists for the liner notes for this collection was written by Steve Berlin from the legendary band Los Lobos. He joins us from KUAZ in Tucson. Thank you both very much for being with us.
STEVE BERLIN: Thank you.
SIMON: Steve Berlin, let me begin with you. You've written an essay for this book called "A Jewish Lobo Speaks." And you say that you might never have dropped out of Hebrew school (Laughing) if your cantor had been different. Let me put it that way.
BERLIN: Well, you know, if this was the soundtrack to my Hebrew school experience, it would have been a totally different story.
SIMON: What do you think this connection is between Jewish culture and Latin music?
BERLIN: Well, beyond the novelty aspect, you know, a lot of the scales are actually, well, the Sephardic part of the Jewish religion - is enormous similarities in a lot of the scales that they use, not to get too pedantic about it. But the minor tonic to the fifth chord is that you - pretty much anytime you hear a Latin song in a minor key, that's where it's going to go. And we've been using that riff for a long time. I don't know. There's something about Latin music that connects with the Jewish experience in a really profound way.
SIMON: Josh Kun, the Jewish Americans were intrinsic to the mambo craze of the 1950s?
KUN: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you know, Steve, I think it's important that he's breaking down the minor/major tonics. There's also, of course, tonic water and the importance of the kind of cultural overlays through music, through food and through the proximity of neighborhoods, which so many of the songs in this compilation come out of. And indeed, in the 1950s especially, during the mambo craze, American Jews were central to the popularity of mambo. They were dancing the mambo at the Palladium, dancing in the Catskills. They became known as mambo-nicks. They were writing songs with titles about, you know, Mamba Moishe. It became part of what it meant to be Jewish in mid-century America.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "MESHUGANAH MAMBO")
SLIM GAILLARD: (Singing) So, dance, dance, dance, learn at a glance, go romance, Meshuganah Mambo.
SIMON: You write here, Mr. Berlin, that you say this collection goes from the sublime to the ridiculous - my Yiddish, (Singing) my Yiddish mambo..."Moe the Schmoe Takes a Rhumba Lesson." We're going to play a clip of this: "Channah from Havana."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CHANNAH FROM HAVANA")
THE BARRY SISTERS: (Singing) Each time I want some (unintelligible), it's costing me a silver fox (and that ain't lox). I say stop or else it's goodbye. She said ay-yay-yay, I'll live by. (foreign language spoken) since my Channah came back from Havana. What should I do? I'm asking you. Now, she calls my baba (unintelligible) a babalou.
SIMON: I could listen to this all day but at some point we have to talk to the two of you also.
BERLIN: How great is that? It's just genius.
SIMON: It really is. Well, let's get to the sublime, however. I'm so glad we get the chance to talk about Eydie Gorme too, because this is an artist who, of course, Steve and Eydie, she certainly had a well-known glorious career singing music in English, if I might put it that way. But we're talking about someone who is the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants. Let's listen to one of Eydie Gorme's Spanish language hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SABOR A MI")
EYDIE GORME: (Singing in foreign language)
SIMON: Now, it seems to me - last year some time I was watching some clips from the old Jack Parr show and it seemed to me he would bring on Steve and Eydie and they would sing a couple of songs together and then she would sing one in Spanish.
KUN: Yeah, I mean, it was a key part of her musical identity. But one that in the U.S. though, you know, you're right, people knew about it. I think it's so interesting if you go to Latin America, especially Mexico, I mean, Eydie Gorme is an icon, someone who's not thought of as part of a particular era of kind of Rat Pack lounge musical royalty. But really as one of the key interpreters of the Latin American popular songbook because of these recordings that she did in Spanish.
SIMON: You know, we had the honor of having Herb Alpert on our show a few weeks ago. And he jokes about the fact that a lot of people think he's Latin.
KUN: Yeah, well, that was a big part, you know. We've got him on this complication doing one of the few explicitly Jewish songs that the Brass ever did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELZ MEIN SHTETELE BELZ")
KUN: But that was a big part of their success in the early days with "The Lonely Bull," is that people thought that Herb Alpert, with his Semitic good looks on the cover of that first record of "The Lonely Bull," maybe he was Mexican. And actually I met a lot of people in Mexico who still think of Herb as a kind of honorary Mexican, who learned very late in their fandom that he in fact was not born there but was an American Jew.
SIMON: Another delight from this album is a - unexpected take on a popular tune from the musical "West Side Story."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")
LA LUPE: (Singing in Spanish)
SIMON: Of course, much of the creative team of "West Side Story" - might I put it that way - were American Jews.
KUN: Yes, absolutely. And in fact the Puerto Rican characters and plots of "West Side Story" that we now know and love actually originally were Jewish characters and subplots. There's a great secret synergy there that this classic song, "America," about assimilation started off being a Jewish story that then got rewritten as a Puerto Rican one. And then when La Lupe does it, she does it as a Cuban immigrant song but changes up some of the lyrics and makes it a kind of anti-assimilationist Cuban immigrant manifesto. It's an incredible example of just how these stories double back on each other and how the connections weren't just singular but had multiple identities over time.
SIMON: Steve Berlin, is there much crossover between Jewish and Latin music today?
BERLIN: One of the more remarkable things that I learned doing this was how rich and deep the Jewish salsa connection is. I mean, Larry Harlow, who's featured on this record, being one of very many Jewish salsa musicians and really prominent ones too. So, there's certainly that aspect.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YO SOY LATINO")
LARRY HARLOW: (Singing in Spanish)
SIMON: Josh Kun, what would you like people to take away from their time spent listening to this CD?
KUN: One of the things we try to do at the Idelsohn Society is use these historical recordings to shed new light on the history of American Jewish life. And so the hope is that people understand that this is not kind of anomalous novelty story but really is, you know, is one that lasts decades. If you follow the album chronologically, it goes from Jews writing songs that reference Latin music to major Latin artists and Latin bands with Jews playing in their bands, playing Latin music. And that's an important transformation that we see this as not just a strictly Jewish story but is a Latino story as well.
SIMON: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us. Josh Kun from the Idelsohn Foundation, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos. This double album we've been talking about, "It's a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba." It's available now. And, gentlemen, much nachas to you to the holidays.
BERLIN: Thank you so much, Scott.
KUN: Thanks, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "IT'S A SCREAM HOW LEVINE DOES THE RHUMBA")
RUTH WALLIS: (Singing) It's a scream how Levine does the rhumba...
SIMON: Should that have been mucho nachos? This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "IT'S A SCREAM HOW LEVINE DOES THE RHUMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.