With President Obama visiting Havana, and Cuba opening up to Americans for the first time since the early Sixties, it’s a good time to savor all things Cuban…and remember its intersection with Jewish culture in America in a new documentary film entitled “The Mamboniks.”
Directed by Peabody Award winner and DC resident Lex Gillespie, “The Mamboniks” tells a surprising, little-known story: how Jewish people fell head over heels in love with Latin music and dance in the years directly following World War II. Back then, two cultures, Jewish and Latino, met on the dance floor at a time when America was racially segregated, and anti-Semitism was commonplace.
Sitting down in a Boston deli one day in 1959, Irving Fields faced a puzzling problem. A pianist and composer, Fields had just finished recording a new album, and he needed a title. His record was a novel, upbeat mix of Latin rhythms and Jewish melodies. As Irving took a bite of his bagel, the title hit him: “Bagels and Bongos.” His landmark record reportedly sold two million copies worldwide after its release.
Irving Fields and countless other Jewish musicians and dancers fell under the sway of Latin rhythms that hit their peak of popularity in the Mad Men, neon-splashed world of ‘50s New York.
Set in New York, the Catskills, Miami Beach and sultry Havana, the film features a lovable, somewhat zany group of characters now retired yet still dancing near Boca Raton, Florida. This array of Damon Runyon-like characters from mambo’s heyday ranges in age from the seventies to the nineties. We meet dancers, musicians, club owners, disc jockeys, and record company moguls. Many possess the Yiddish gift of gab, spinning their tales with humor, heart and chutzpah.
Their affinity for Latin sounds began in the 1930s, when Jewish Americans got their first taste of Cuban rhythms, rum and romance while vacationing in Havana, “the Paris of the Caribbean.” Their love blossomed on dance floors back home.
In the late 1940s, a hot new dance from Havana was on the rise: the mambo. At Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom, located at W. 53rd and Broadway and known as “The Home of the Mambo,” Jewish dancers were captivated by the swinging big bands of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez.
They became the mambo’s biggest non-Latino fans, earning them the nickname, “the mamboniks.”
“It’s a Yiddish expression,” explains Irv Greenbaum, a sound engineer for a variety of Latin record companies. “Whenever you add the suffix ‘nik to a word, it means follower or group member. Like beatnik. So a mambonik was someone who went crazy for the mambo. They danced to it, and went everywhere mambo was played.”
Director Lex Gillespie is a veteran public radio and television producer. He is a three-time Peabody Award winner for two PRI (Public Radio International) series he wrote and produced about culture and music: “Whole Lotta Shakin,” a 10-hour exploration of early rock ‘n roll music and “Let the Good Times Roll,” a 26-hour history of rhythm & blues. He was a Producer at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the documentary series “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was,” which won a Peabody and a Silver Baton from the duPont-Columbia Awards at Columbia Journalism School.
“The Mamboniks” chronicles the rise and fall of the mambo itself – a Cuban-born dance set to a mix of African rhythms and European melodies. Its catchy beat pirouetted the mambo to national prominence, and it was danced coast-to-coast. It was prominently featured in LIFE magazine. Marilyn Monroe was an avid dancer. It inspired pop hits like Dean Martin’s “Mambo Italiano.” And on the air, TV programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show” spotlighted the duo Augie & Margo.
We travel to Cuba with mambonik Marvin “Marvano” Jaye, who last visited the island in 1959, when dancers performed as the bombs of Fidel Castro and his bearded revolutionaries echoed in the streets. “Marvano” takes us on a tour of his old haunts, from tropical beer gardens to the famed Tropicana nightclub.
Most dancers say the mambo was pure fun, but their affinity for it often runs deeper than that. During the post-WWII era, dancing helped Jews banish, at least for a moment, the horrors of the Holocaust and find joy once again.
As Holocaust survivor Charles Swietarski explains, “People who experienced the bitter years of the War, who were later liberated, and looked forward to a new life, enjoyed the beat of the Latin music.”
The film sold out E Street Cinemas when it debuted as a work-in-progress at the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival in February.
Now, finishing funds are now needed to complete a final version and show it at Jewish Film Festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Australia’s Jewish Film Festival wants to show it down under!
Please become part of this uplifting film with a tax-deductible donation here: The Mamboniks.