Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: ‘It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba’
A new compilation revives the once ubiquitous, now mostly forgotten Latin-Jewish connection of the 1940s to the ’80s
“Exodus,” by Ray Barretto
Otto Preminger’s epic drama based on Leon Uris’ novel (with a screenplay by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) won both 1960 Oscar and Grammy awards as best song. This was good news for bringing Jewish and Israeli identity to mainstream American culture; not so good if you’re a young rock music fanatic seeking succor from the bounty of easy-listening instrumental hits crowding the radio in the wake of the payola scandals: Bert Kampfert’s “Wonderland at Night,” Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta,” and piano duo Ferrante & Teicher’s version of “Exodus.” Conga player Ray Barretto was a visionary band leader with an ear to trends and the skill to transcend them. He would cross over to rock with the novelty “El Watusi” in 1962 and make money doing hip versions of James Bond themes before emerging as one of Fania Records’ defining artists later in the decade. His “Exodus” is, naturally, a trip: It begins with seething congas, and the rumbling rhythm never lets up, even as the dramatic melody soars, fueled by killer choruses of high-flying flutes and sassy saxophones.
An investigation into ‘Antichrist Kramer,’ SSP Records, and other labels suggests a history of real-world violence and bigotry