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Shango shalom
The Jewish-Cuban connection

Cuba killed the Cohens’ marriage. Channa Cohen and her husband were doing just fine down in Miami until Channa took a 10-day cruise to Havana and came back a Cubaphile. Now all she wanted to do was dance mambo and cha cha cha. Now she called her bubele "Bubalu."

Eli Basse’s 1952 klezmer-mambo hit for the Barry Sisters, "Channa from Havanna," made Cuba into a place where identities could be swapped for the price of a bottle of rum, where American Jews stopped being Jewish and started being Latino, and, in the case of Mr. Cohen (whose perspective is where the song’s sympathies lie), where Jewish husbands lost their nice Jewish wives to the heat and passion of the tropical dance floor. A contemporary of Basse’s, Mickey Katz, told a similar tale in his "Yiddishe Mambo," which is about a Jewish grandma on an "Afro-Cuban" kick who falls for Latin bandleaders. "Her kugel is hot for Xavier Cugat," Katz winked. "She’s baking her challahs for Noro Morales."

Which isn’t to say Jewish men don’t get Cubanized too. In Ruth Wallis’s "It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba," from the ’40s, Levine — an immigrant from Odesa — takes rumba lessons and "learns what his maracas are for." And the idol of the young David Kepesh in Philip Roth’s novel The Professor of Desire is Latin drummer Herbie Bratasky, the MC and bandleader at Kepesh’s Hungarian Royale resort in the Catskills. Bratasky was a cultural double agent, "our Jewish Cugat": he sold linoleum for his uncle during the week and played in a Latin American band on the weekend. That, combined with tanned skin that never burned and his muscular build, made him a "wonder of our tribe."

All this Jewish Latinophilia (which reached one of its peaks when salsa giant Larry Harlow released his El Judío Maravilloso, "The Marvelous Jew," album in 1975) made Latinos answer back. Pupi Campo covered the Barton Brothers. Tito Puente covered Irving Fields when he played Grossinger’s. Joe Quijano, who once boasted, "Yo soy el son cubano" (I am the Cuban son), did Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin.

And in the ’50s, Ray Barretto, Willie Rodriguez, and Charlie Palmieri teamed up with John Cali, Doc Cheatham, and Clark Terry to form Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen, an alleged Latin-Jewish supergroup that tore "Hava Nagila" up as a cha cha cha and made "Die Greene Koseene" do the merengue. The Latin Lantzmen were prosthetic Jews in the way that Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos — a band of New York City Jews, blacks, and Latinos who play Latin music through downtown avant-jazz ears — are prosthetic Cubans, except that the Lantzmen pretended not to be postizo and Ribot flaunts Cuban postizismo as an æsthetic stance.

One of Ribot’s bandmates is former Miami Sound Machine percussionist Roberto Juan Rodríguez, a Cuban Jew who has just released his own statement on the Latin-Jewish hook-up El Danzón de Moises (Tzadik). Billed as an excavation of Cuba’s Jewish community, and dedicated to Rodríguez’s mother, father, and "all the Jews of Cuba," El Danzón de Moises sounds radically different from much of its 20th-century "bagels and bongos" predecessors. Instead of separating "our tribe" from "their tribe" and treating "Jewish" and "Latin" as if they were separate worlds (when Channa goes to Havana, she might as well be going to another planet), the music on Danzón is born from Latin-Jewish convergence in a community severed by politics and the sea — an elegant and thoughtful musical rendering of the 15,000 Cuban Jews who left the island for Miami and New York after the Revolution and the Jews who stayed, the Jews some have dubbed "Castro’s Jews."

Rodríguez listens and plays across this divide (tracks have names like "Danzonette Hebreo" and "Shalom a Shango"), and though Danzón clearly emanates from New York, it radiates with movement, glides between eras, bends cultures into each other with the fluidity of a musician bending notes. Part of its success lies in the instruments that take center stage: clarinets that channel Eastern European klezmer, percussion that channels Afro-Cuban rhythmic traditions, violins and cellos that belong equally to traditional Jewish music and to Cuban charanga.

"Cuban" and "Jewish" don’t so much speak to each other on Danzón as they speak through each other. "The Shvitz" rests mournful violins atop a clave beat. "Guahira," with its title nod to the country Cuban, flows a guajira shuffle into an accordion-and-clarinet bulgar bounce that ends up nodding to the country Jew at the same time.

Rodríguez plays with your expectations throughout Danzón. So by the time you hit "Jerusalem Market," you’re not surprised to hear an open-air trumpet-and-percussion jam that isn’t necessarily Jerusalem at all. It could be Havana or Brooklyn or even Channa’s Miami Beach, a mobile meeting of sounds and identities that can be reached only by following the notes.

Issue Date: March 28 - April 4, 2002
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