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THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished.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


Word for Word: Rae Arroyo

Known for her radio show "The Latin Connection," the late Rae Arroyo was a Bronx-born Sephardic Jew with a grand passion for Latin music. (She actually grew up speaking Ladino, the ancient language of her Turkish-Jewish ancestors.) Rae was just 13 years old when she first stepped foot in the famous Palladium dance hall, in 1951, and by the late '60s, she had become a professional Latin dancer. In 1979 she first took to the airwaves, remaining on the air for over twenty years.

Born and raised in the Bronx, I began my love affair with Latin music at the age of eight. I started collecting Latin jazz and salsa recordings at about that time and I've been collecting ever since. Of course, the music wasn't called salsa at the time, just Latin music. The DJ's I listened to were Art "Pancho" Raymond and Bob "Pedro" Harris. Up in the Catskills, it was Willie and Ray out of Liberty, New York. Later on it was Dick "Ricardo" Sugar and then Symphony Sid. My dad loved music and to a certain extent, so did my mom.

In my home as a child we could go from Caruso to Glenn Miller to Tito Puente and Jose Curbelo. We also had a great collection of tangos, congas and rumbas. You name it, we had it.

By the time I was 13 years old, we were so into Latin music that my dad started taking me to the Palladium ballroom on 53rd Street and Broadway and known as the home of the mambo. That was back in 1951. That's when I first met Tito Puente. We remained friends to the end. In fact i had been on the phone with him for at least two hours talking about music the day before he entered the hospital.

Although prejudice and bigotry existed everywhere else at the time, it did not exist in the Palladium. Black, white, brown and any shade in between, young and old, rich and poor, gay or straight, who cared? As long as you could dance, preferrably on clave. Great music and dancing. That's what it was all about. People dressed to kill. Men in three piece suits, women in sharp sexy outfits. The atmosphere was great and so were the people. The three house bands were Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito, but many other bands played there as well.

We moved to southern California in 1968 and discovered a lack of this particular type of Latin music on radio in our area. Highly frustrated that I could no longer hear the music I grew up with and shocked that others had not even heard of this type of music, I approached a local jazz station and with that I became a guest on the show, was given a one hour spot of my own which eventually became a six hour show and subsequently the most popular show on KSBR 88.5 fm in Mission Viejo. That was back in 1979. In 1984, I started another show out of Long Beach KLON and for a short time i also did a show out of San Clemente. I called all three shows The Latin Connection. I wanted to make sure the music got out there for all to hear.

Rae Arroyo passed away on March 29, 2006 in Las Vegas.

  • Do you go back with Rae? Leave a comment:



Jewish Harlem Pt. 2

The Jewish presence in Harlem dates back to the years after the Civil War, when the future Barrio was a semi-rural village both geographically and psychically distant from New York City. Its eastern reaches were crisscrossed by streams originating from the Harlem River, and rocky promontories, lowland marshes and wide-open fields contributed to the remove. Wooden shanties pockmarked the area, as seen in this ca. 1890 photograph of Fifth Ave between 116th and 117th Streets. In time, a commercial strip developed along Third Avenue north to 125th Street, populated with single-story shops and homes. A group of German Jews began to set up small stores. Twelve members held the first Sabbath services in Harlem in 1873.

The Harlem pioneers were cut off from the more substantial community on the (lower) East Side. They formed their own synagogues, Jewish schools (cheders), and social groups, including the Harlem YMHA and B’nai B’rith, but it was the railroad that insured the survival of Harlem’s Jews. The Second and Third Avenue elevated trains were completed by 1880, making the arduous trek to Delancey Street a 45 minute commute. Real estate speculators launched an unparalleled construction boom that filled over half of East Harlem with private homes, tenements, and brownstone apartments. Established German Jews moved to Fifth Avenue and its environs, while more utilitarian buildings to the east and south gave shelter to the Irish and Italian rail workers.

Waiting to fill the rest of newly developed Twelfth Ward was the first wave of the largest migration of Eastern European Jews In history. Many were fleeing the Russian pogroms in 1903 and the growing chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Their sheer numbers – nearly 800,000 in 1910, or 41% of all new immigrants -- changed the character of New York City. The storied Lower East Side, with its peddlers, piecework, and vibrant Yiddish press, became a cradle of Eastern European Jewry. Its narrow tenements were filled to bursting with strivers from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and nearly every other nook and cranny around the world that Jews once called home.

Russian peddlers and tailors joined American-born Jewish merchants, small businessmen, successful bankers, and other white-collar professionals. German Jews, clean-shaven and reform-minded, shared the sidewalk with bearded, shawl-draped immigrants seemingly plucked from the Middle Ages. By 1910, East Harlem was home to over 90,000 Jews and dozens of synagogues of varied denominations, from small shuls of former shtetl neighbors to the grandiose Ohab Zedek, one of the largest synagogues in turn-of-the-century New York, home to the famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.

Harlem’s success would be its undoing. The neighborhood that had been a pressure valve for the teeming Lower East Side began to swell itself. The land speculation led to overcrowding and neglect; conditions only worsened as the nation plunged into World War I. All non-essential construction ceased. Rents climbed skyward and buildings fell into disrepair. Mention of “East Harlem” began to take on the desultory tone that it bears to this day. Jews with any savings began to eye the wider spaces of the Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Within a generation, the community that had risen to sophisticated heights was a ghost of its former self. The Jewish population of Harlem spiraled downward, losing nearly 100,000 members in 1923 alone. The Federal Immigration Acts passed a year later shut off New York to Eastern European Jews entirely, and the community simply dried up. The poorly-maintained apartments were swallowed up, abusive rents and all, by African-American migrants from the south, whose neighborhood choices were far more circumscribed than that of the Jews. Along with them came another hardscrabble American minority, the Puerto Ricans.

Labels: ,