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THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished.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


Cugat and the Jews

Mambo, to paraphrase Madonna, made the people come together. Not just Jews and Latinos, but also Italians, Greeks, Irish, Blacks, and the occasional Protestant. But the decades prior to the ‘50s, while marked by the occasional outbreak of Latin rhythm among non-Latinos, were generally less inclusive. Language barriers, racism, and a general lack of cultural understanding about the people and cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America created a rift between Latin music as it was performed by and for Latinos and the exotic fare that was offered to white Americans, primarily by Hollywood musicals. The man who made his mark with the latter but eventually earned the grudging respect of the former, went by one name: Cugat.

Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Bru y Deulofeo was not a Jew. But so beloved was the Gironese violinist by Manhattan’s mamboniks that the rumor persisted. (That his third wife, Abbe Lane, was a curvaceous Jewess many years his junior is beyond reproof.) Cugat was, however, the link between Jewish movie moguls and Jewish mambo maniacs. He grew up in Cuba and found his fortune in Hollywood, selling millions of records from the ‘30s through the ‘60s.

Cugat began performing in films early on with a nattily dressed orchestra. He almost always played himself. Films that featured his occasionally saccharine outfit include Ten Cents a Dance with Barbara Stanwyck (1931) and the Mae West vehicle Go West, Young Man (1936); he was the star of the first musical short ever produced, Cugat and his Gigolos, for Warner Brothers. In addition to his film and music career, the bandleader was also a talented caricaturist whose drawings appeared in the Los Angeles Times: his skill at exaggeration cannily played up Latin stereotypes in dramatic, impressionistic works.

In 1935 he had three hits on the pop charts: “The Lady In Red,” "The Cocoanut Pudding Vendor," and “Begin the Beguine,” the latter written by Cole Porter, with assistance from Cugat himself. Soon thereafter he began a lengthy residence at the Sert Room in New York’s Waldorf Astoria. Demand grew so great that Cugat was turning away gigs: the band simply couldn’t be everywhere at once. So, in 1937, Cugat established “Xavier Cugat Orchestras” in five cities. To lead the Miami franchise, he hired a white Cuban vocalist, Desi Arnaz.

Meanwhile, Cugat’s appearances in a spate of B-grade MGM films in the ‘40s – ten in all -- made “Cugie” the face of Latin music for mainstream America until the arrival of Perez Prado in the 1950’s. Jewish musical comic Mickey Katz noted his appeal to Jewish grandmothers and others in his “Yiddishe Mambo,” with the couplet “Her kugel is hot / For Xavier Cugat.” He teamed up with Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian star, who had become an American sensation at the same time, in 1948’s A Date with Judy. The pair became king and queen of Hollywood’s tropical kitsch.

Cugat’s watered-down versions of Latin rhythm – often with English lyrics that denigrated Latinos – was uniquely American: it was more pastiche than anything else. He famously described his rationale thus: “Americans know nothing about Latin music. They neither understand nor feel it. So they have to be given music more for the eyes than the ears. Eighty percent visual, the rest aural. To succeed in America, I gave the Americans a Latin music that had nothing authentic about it. Then I began to change the music and play more legitimately."

Indeed, Cugat’s relocation from Hollywood to New York, and competition in the hot-house of Afro-Cuban jazz, invigorated his anodyne arrangements. For a while, Miguelito Valdez, a true Cuban rumbero, fronted the band (it was he who hit first with “Babalú,” before Desi Arnaz’s more pallid rendition). Bands that emulated Cugat’s brand of cocktail Latin music became popular with the Jewish community, including Pupi Campo, Jose Curbelo, Noro Morales, and even the Jewish bandleader Alfredo Mendez (born Alfred Mendelsohn).

Cugat’s canny marketing (girls, Chihuahuas, and then music) and his willingness to jump on any trend, from tango to rumba to mambo to cha-cha-cha, insured his popularity for decades, until a stroke forced his retirement in 1971. Despite the treacle of his best-known work, Cugat must be credited for opening American ears to Latin sounds. Nor was his band anything to snicker at: In addition to Miguelito Valdes, Cugat worked with Tito Puente, the vocalist Tito Rodriguez, Machito, and, er, Charo (his fourth wife). He died in Barcelona in 1990.

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