The Mamboniks

A repository for articles and artifacts regarding the intriguing history of Jews in Latin music.

THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished. I hope that sharing my interviews and materials will help broaden the understanding of this unique moment in Jewish cultural history.

All material copyright Mark Schwartz, 2006


Jewish Harlem Pt. 1

Before there was Spanish Harlem, there was Jewish Harlem.

The eastern edge of Manhattan, from Fifth Avenue to the East River between 96th St. and 142nd St., is today New York City’s Latin heart, “El Barrio” to over 50,000 residents of Puerto Rican and other Latino ancestry. Walking around these streets, where salsa music streams from tenement windows, it’s hard to imagine that this was once the second largest Jewish community in America. But scratch the surface of today’s Barrio, and another ghetto emerges. It’s hard to miss, for instance, Mt. Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852 as Jews’ Hospital, on 100th Street across from Central Park. But only city records recall that the immense Baptist Temple on West 116th Street, was once the home of Ohab Zedek, one of the largest Jewish congregations in New York at the turn of the century. Between the two, at the foot of West 110th St., stands La Hermosa Church, formerly the Jewish-owned Park Palace catering hall, one of the hottest Latin dance halls from the ‘30s to the ‘50s. Even the Grace Aguilar branch of the New York Public library on 110th St. between Lexington and Third Avenues, which would seem to be a proud Puerto Rican institution, is named for the English Jewish poet and novelist of Spanish extraction.

In Harlem, Jews and Latinos struck up a musical relationship. Jewish entrepreneurs sold and recorded Latin music to Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Spanish speakers. They rented out dance halls and social clubs to Puerto Rican revelers, encouraging the local music scene. They were among the first devotees of a tropical music that grew right in their backyards, that wasn’t just the sombrero-topped Hollywood facsimile of Latin rhythm. Harlem’s Jewish businessmen in the ‘30s – the owners of the Park Plaza, the proprietor of Seeco Records, Sidney Seigel – saw the neighborhood change into a thriving Caribbean community.



Bagels & Bongos

In 1961, a cocktail jazz pianist named Irving Fields went into a Boston recording studio with a mission. After decades of performing his romantic brand of Latin jazz – he had written a hit for Xavier Cugat, “The Miami Beach Rhumba,” and “Managua, Nicaragua” for Guy Lombardo -- Fields wanted to put his stamp on the music of his youth: Jewish music. He grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, and was a child actor in the Yiddish theater. It felt perfectly natural for him to take classics such as “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Belz” and give them a little Latin zest; and he was sure that his audience would go for it, too. This was the heyday of the mambo and cha-cha-chá, after all. Taking a break for lunch at a local deli, the composer was contentedly jawing a corned beef sandwich when inspiration struck and all the ideas crowding his head fell into place. The title, of course, would have to be Bagels and Bongos. (Check out the Reboot Stereophonic reissue!)

Fields, born Irving Schwartz, had been performing such material for years on cruise ships, in hotels in Florida and New York, and in the Jewish resorts known as the Borscht Belt. In fact, beloved Jewish artists from the Barry Sisters to Mickey Katz had gone Latin from time to time. There was even an ode to kosher wine called “Mambo-shevitz.” (Man oh man!) But none shared Fields’ flair for Cuban boogie and Yiddish schmaltz. When he brought the Bagels and Bongos tapes to Decca Records in New York, they were ecstatic. The album was a smash, inspiring a string of recordings, and is today a highly sought-after collector’s item.

Fields had tapped into a Jewish affection for tropical music that was at its apex by the start of the ‘60s. Thousands of Jewish resort-goers spent summers learning to dance rumba and cha-cha-chá. Weddings and bar-mitzvahs from New York to Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles were punctuated by mambos and conga-lines, and had been since the late ‘40s. While few remember it today, in the postwar years the cha-cha-cha was known as the Jewish National Dance. Young Jewish fans of Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat called themselves “mamboniks” – which was Yiddish for mambo-lovers – and they were active in every aspect of Latin music: as musicians, dancers, record producers, club owners, concert promoters, radio broadcasters, even the first mass-produced bongos were designed by a Jewish drum-maker.

In making mambo their lives’ soundtrack – so soon after the war in Europe ended and its horrors began to sink in -- the Mamboniks chose to tell their story over again, to a different beat. Bagels and Bongos, for instance, took a lugubrious history, full of despairing Yiddish chronicles and plaints, and made it swing. Fields’ music is by turns romantic and sentimental, traditional and hip, surprising and familiar. At first blush it sounds like the cocktail music tinkling at a yacht club function, but the meter and melodies would never have been heard at a WASPy society ball. It was Jewish music, and distinctly American Jewish music, Latin beat and all.



Word for Word: Norby Walters

Norby Walters opened the Bel Air club in 1953, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on Sutter Ave. at Junius Street. A regular at Latin dances at the Palladium in Manhattan, Walters owned a series of clubs and restaurants that catered to Brooklyn's large postwar Jewish community. He later became a notable Hollywood agent.

My interest in the music began as an early be-bopper in the '40s. As a kid in school. A lot of people were into the big swing bands, and I was into the early be-bop sounds in the early '40s -- Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, people like that. And I moved from the be-bop sound into the Afro-Cuban sound, which was the sound of Machito. Dizzy Gillespie got very much enthralled with Latin music and I kinda followed him along right to that as my own tastes changed.

The mamboniks of '49 and '51 was a big gang of Jewish boys and girls from all boroughs who used to converge on the Palladium on Wednesday nights. In 1949 I was 17 years old, all the young people, well hundreds or literally thousands were mamboniks. A mambonik was a trombenik who loved mambo. "Trombenik" being a yiddishe word for a bum. A knockaround guy.

When did you first hear that term?

I guess around 1950 or '51. We considered ourselves mamboniks. It was a badge of who we were, you know? There was really thousands of people into it, but there were a couple hundred core faces. You'd see them all the time. Wherever the dances were. And when I opened up the club, hundreds of them came to my club. I kinda knew everybody, I was part of that clique.

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What's a Mambonik?

"Mambonik" was the name for a certain kind of young Jewish kid in the '40s and '50s who was nuts for Latin music -- mambo, cha-cha-chá, rumba, and the like.

The root, of course, is mambo, that most delirious precursor to salsa. But the suffix says it all -- in Yiddish, --nik denotes a partisan, an aficionado of, or a member of a group. Beatnik, peacenik, refusenik, no-goodnik are other cognates. As the Yiddish --nik modified the Afro-Latin mambo, so did Jews find in mambo a raw material to remake as their own.

"Mambonik" also rhymed with the Yiddish trombenik, a no-good troublemaker. As one proud member of the gang told me, "A mambonik was a trombenik who loved mambo."

"Mambonik" (or "Mambonick") was also a 1950 Seeco side cut by Pupi Campo, a theme song for the Puerto Rican bandleader's considerable Jewish following. Campo also delighted the kosher crowd with a rumba version of the Yiddish novelty song "Joe and Paul" (both were arranged by a young Tito Puente).