‘Bagels and Bongos’: Rediscovering classics of Jewish-Latino fusionby heather robinson, jta
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new york | In 1959, when Irving Fields was playing piano at the Sherry Biltmore Hotel in Boston, two couples approached him with competing requests.
"One couple requested, 'I Love You Much Too Much,' a nice Jewish song," Fields recalled, while the other couple insisted, "We wanna rumba."
"So I blended them and played this traditional Jewish song as a rumba, and the crowd loved it," he said.
Now 90, Fields is among a group of musicians whose music is being re-mastered and re-released by Reboot Stereophonic, a not-for-profit record label dedicated to mining and preserving music from the Jewish past. Their first releases will be long-forgotten Jewish-Latino musical classics, including those by Fields.
"Bagels and Bongos," an album of traditional Jewish tunes adapted to sultry Latin rhythms that sold more than 2 million copies worldwide when it was released in 1959, was re-released recently.
In November, Reboot plans to follow with an anthology using Moog synthesizers — experiments with Jewish religious music by electronica pioneer Gershon Kingsley. That will be followed in spring 2006 by salsa band leader Joe Quijano's "Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin," a spirited, affectionate adaptation of the shtetl-themed musical.
By re-releasing Quijano's work, Reboot Stereophonic will feature not only Jewish musicians who "went Latin" but also a Puerto Rican musician who put a Latin touch on Jewish music. Quijano was among a cadre of Latino musicians who capitalized on what many recall as a "Latin craze" within the Jewish world — an enthusiasm for things Puerto Rican, Mexican, Brazilian and Cuban — that paralleled a broader American fascination with Latin culture.
The songs will be released on CDs that will include interviews with the musicians and liner notes that tell stories of "hybrid identities, eclectic communities, racial dialogue and musical style," said Roger Bennett, Reboot Stereophonic's co-founder.
Why focus on the Latin Jewish connection?
For starters, the music reflects a unique part of Jewish musical history in America. Reboot is preserving precious cultural artifacts, said Josh Kun, adviser to the project and a professor of English at the U.C. Riverside, whose book, "Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America" explores the racial politics of American music.
"To put out records that have been forgotten by history — wonderful recordings that speak to different eras in American Jewish life — that's exciting," Kun said.
The years stretching from the post-World War II 1940s through the early 1960s saw many efforts aimed at fusing the music of Jews and Latinos, Kun explained. Those were the days when Miami Beach was a pastel playland for newly prosperous "all-American" Jews who liked to tango and cha-cha under the stars, and when legendary bandmaster Tito Puente headlined in the grand ballroom of Grossinger's resort in the Catskills.
Ads in the New York Post advertised Latin dance events for Jewish singles, Jewish couples danced to all-Latin music at the Palladium and many bar mitzvah boys insisted on Latin bands the way today's bar mitzvah boys demand DJs and rap music.
Whimsical as it may sound, the project has a serious side. Reboot Stereophonic is an offshoot of Reboot, a larger philanthropic project aimed at nurturing affiliation among young Jewish adults.
As such, the project's subtext appears to be documenting creative ways in which American Jews negotiated identity issues in the past, seemingly to inspire today's generation.
Upon rediscovering these classics of Jewish-Latino fusion, "our first reaction was, 'Why have we not heard this music and these stories before?'" Bennett said. "They raise so many questions about how Jewish identity can and can't be changed, and they challenge the listener to think about ways to forge one's own identity."
Of course, it's also about the music.
"The stuff is fun to listen to," Kun said. Indeed, the songs on Fields' "Bagels and Bongos" CD offer Latin incarnations of traditional Jewish songs like "Hava Negillah," re-imagined as "Havana Negillah" with a sexy, percussive beat; and "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" set to a sultry mambo rhythm.
Reboot Stereophonic's project may have special relevance given the burgeoning Latin population across the United States and growing interest in the topic of Latin/Jewish musical encounters.
In October, Harvard University will host a seminar on Jews and Latin music titled, "The Jewish-Latino Mix: Making Salsa," featuring pianist Larry Harlow, known to fans as "El Judio Maravilloso," or "The Marvelous Jew."
Charly Rodriguez Schwartz, 37, a New York-based Jewish-Latino musician, sounded a positive note about Reboot's project.
"It sounds cool" and timely, said Schwartz, who performs with various salsa and Latin bands around New York, including Los Banditos, Grupo Latin Vibe and The TM Vibe Jazztet.
"With the growing Latin population across the U.S., Latin influence will resonate increasingly in various types of music," he predicted.
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