Latin music star Arturo O’Farrill may not be Jewish, but he loves to show off his Yiddishkeit.
Of Cuban descent, O’Farrill lives in New York, is married to a Jewish woman and is raising his children as Jews. As a youth, he would shlep out to Coney Island to hang with his best friend’s Yiddishe grandma. And back in the day, as an up-and-coming musician, he and his band would jam to impromptu horas.
Maybe that’s why the pianist-arranger was so taken by an obscure 1961 recording, “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos” by Juan Calle and his Latin Lantzmen, which set Yiddish theater show tunes to Latin beats. The CD has been rereleased by the Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation.
Conceived by Calle (the nom de salsa of John Cali, an Italian American banjo player), the album made a serious –– and in O’Farrill’s opinion, successful –– attempt to fuse Jewish and Latin strains. The melodies may invoke the Lower East Side, but the congas, timbales and bongos invoke Little Havana.
“The playing is so beautiful,” says O’Farrill. “I didn’t know all of these Yiddish songs, but the musicianship is impeccable. It’s easy to confuse mixing of genres with hodgepodge, but these guys sound so natural.”
O’Farrill was inspired to recreate the full “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos” set with an all-star salsa band last year at New York’s Lincoln Center. It included songs such as the cha-cha “Havah Nagila,” the samba “O, Momme! Bin Ich Farliebt” and the paso doble version of “Glick, Du Bist Gekummen.”
He’s ready to do it all over again in San Francisco as part of the festivities surrounding “Black Sabbath,” an Idelsohn Society exhibition that just opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, highlighting the history of African American artists covering and interpreting Jewish music.
O’Farrill and his orchestra will perform “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos” on Monday, Aug. 30 at Yoshi’s. His band features a few other genuine all-stars. Joining O’Farrill on stage will be Larry “El Judio Maravilloso” Harlow, Jeremiah Lockwood (of the Israeli group Balkan Beat Box) and Mexican singer Ceci Bastida.
After the successful Lincoln Center show, it’s no surprise O’Farrill wanted to do a reprise. “People went bananas,” he recalls. “I was looking at the audience, seeing young Chassidic men dancing, Puerto Rican fans, crusty old jazz fans. It went so well, and I had so much fun doing it.”
The original “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos” album came along at a time when Jewish interest in Latin music had hit a high point. For decades, the connections had grown mostly with Jewish artists dabbling in Latin forms. Catskill resorts often featured entertainers like Tito Puente (a regular at Grossinger’s) and de rigueur rumba lessons (as depicted in the movie “Dirty Dancing”).
O’Farrill sees plenty of overlap between Jewish and Latin music and culture.
“There’s a huge sense of drama and pathos in Latin that is not lost on Jewish music,” he says. “Latin is very declamatory, the vocal styling very passionate. It’s not unlike a cantor. Jews in the beginning of the history of New York were much maligned; Latinos as well. There’s camaraderie there of people outside the norm, disenfranchised from mainstream society.”
He may have sensed that himself growing up. Born in Mexico, he spent most of his life in New York City, steeped in the music of his famous father, the late Latin music master Chico O’Farrill.
After completing formal music studies at the Manhattan School of Music and the Brooklyn College Conservatory, O’Farrill played with a variety of Latin and jazz artists in the 1970s and ’80s, including Carla Bley, Dizzie Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis. From there, he fronted his own bands, including the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, in residence at New York’s Birdland nightclub for more than a decade.
He has won Grammy awards for his recordings, taught master classes and toured the world.
Once the “Mazel Tov” project wraps, O’Farrill has more Jewish-Latin hybrids in mind, one of which is positively cantorial.
“The hard-core Afro-Cuban folkloric [style] lends itself to cantorial singing,” he says. “One of my dreams is to do a real Afro-Cuban rabbinical album: a real liturgy, but set in Afro-Cuban. That music speaks to me.”
Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra will perform “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos” at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 30 at Yoshi’s Jazz Club, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F. $18. (415) 655-5600 or www.yoshis.com.