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Your Salsa Judía Playlist

“They became great dancers, the Jews did.”

Irin Carmon
June 13, 2012

A Diasporist moment here, since this is my house this week. It doubles as a hump day break for the weary. Yes: A music and dance interlude, dedicated to salsa, which is hybrid, immigrant music that thrives in transit between islands and cities. It’s a genre where Jews have historically been both performers and enthusiastic consumers, as detailed in this brilliant oral history of the Mamboniks by Mark Schwartz. Back then, as Eddie Palmieri told him, “You used Jewish musicians or you didn’t have a band!” And Tito Puente played bar mitzvahs.

One cannot but begin with Larry Harlow, El Judio Maravilloso (the marvelous Jew), born Lawrence Ira Kahn and raised on the New York Jewish nightclub circuit. A bandleader and multi-instrumentalist, Harlow was referred to by the New York Times as “one of the most important figures in the history of salsa.” Nuyorican Boogaloo king Jimmy Sabater (recently deceased) told Schwartz, “Larry Harlow? That guy’s Puerto Rican! He ain’t Jewish. He walks, talks, eats, sleeps, drinks Puerto Rican. He’s mishpucha.” Harlow’s also a Santeria priest, but he’ll always be a tribe member to us.

Sax player Schep Pullman called himself Chepito on the Catskills mambo circuit to seem more Latin. And then, he told Schwartz, others changed their names to sound more Jewish when convenient: “Arnie was Jewish, myself was Jewish, Pat Russo was Italian, but he liked Jewish girls so he used to change his name. He used to change his name to Rushowitz or something for the girl’s parents.”

Puerto Rican-born bandleader Raphy Leavitt has a Jewish father, but my favorite song of his, “Jibaro Soy,” is basically an homegrown peasant’s anthem. (Did you know “White Christmas” was written by a Jew?)

Maybe part of the attraction of Jews to salsa is all that minor key action. That’s one of the links trumpeter David Buchbinder found between klezmer and salsa, which he fuses in his own work with Cuban keyboardist Hilario Duran. “There’s something in common in the way both are sung,” Buchbinder says in an interview with J. “Not stylistically, but it has to do with the intensity and passion of the singing, using the voice to carry underlying messages. Not only do they both work out of minor keys, they use a similar mode, and a lot of chord patterns are similar.”

Which brings us to: Hava Nagila — or Havana Gila, salsa style, with a motley crew of women in charge. And it’s actually amazing.

Cuban Jewish salsa on the shofar: This is real. The Internet is a beautiful thing.

Related: Player’s Club [Guilt & Pleasure]
Mamboniks [Blogspot]

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.