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Mambo Madness 

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES January/February 2007

Tito Puente orchestra
The Tito Puente Band at the Allen Room, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC

Mambo, the Cuban music/dance that achieved a fever pitch of popularity in the 50’s, referred to as “mambomania,” is being given a big push to regain popularity and stardom by both old timers and young, non-Latino dancers. A recent concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center called “Palladium Memories” was further described as “A Night of Dancing Celebrating the Palladium Mambo Big Band Era.”  It featured the Tito Puente Band, demonstrations by established professional ballroom dancers and a dance floor in front of the orchestra, all backed by the floor to ceiling windows and beautiful view of the Allen Room.  This wonderful space was filled with the dancing audience, who were invited to move with every note. As Felipe Luciano, the MC, said, it was not a time for nostalgia, but of regeneration of a music culture that demanded simultaneous movement

Mambo is both a musical style and a dance form that shows the converging influences of Africa, Europe and quintessential Cuban jazz. Historically, the culture of the African Haitian settlers in Cuba joined with the country dances brought by the Europeans, to which was added a syncopation called cinquille. One of the many resulting forms was the son, a mixture of African and Spanish elements, often called danzon, which was a song as well.

Delille Thomas and his Partner in Performance at
Allen Room,
at Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC

In 1937 Orestes and Cachao Lopez, the latter a bassist and composer, wrote a danzon called “Mambo.”  The dancing equivalent was introduced in 1943 by Perez Prado, a black Cuban bandleader at the nightclub La Tropicana on the outskirts of Havana. Prado took the rhythm of the sugar cane cutter and incorporated the cinquille syncopation, creating a slightly jagged or staccato effect.  He came up with the idea of a specific dance to the music and was the first to advertise the entire experience as “Mambo”. Among the bandleaders who copied it and developed their own styles of what became a fusion of Cuban jazz and American swing were Xavier Cugat and Tito Puente.

Tito Puente (1923-2000) was a Harlem born Puerto Rican composer, arranger and percussionist who received four Grammy awards and whose popularity extended to the David Letterman Show. He attended Juilliard where he studied composition, orchestration and conducting. In 1948 he formed his first band, the Picadilly Boys. With a large Anglo and Hispanic following, a 1956 poll elected him “King of Mambo.” Puente always said he was really a dancer and had to dance in the studio to see if the music on his recordings worked.

The band that still bears his name has eleven musicians, some of whom have been with the group for forty years. The instruments include the saxophone, flute, bongos, timbales, keyboard, trombone, trumpet, congo, vibraphone and bass. The group is led by Jose Madera, its musical director.

The Mambo resembles the rhumba (also Cuban). It is in 4/4 time with an emphasis on counts 2 and 4, but many native Cubans will break or emphasize any beat. Additionally, the danced mambo usually has a beat in every bar that is a rest, during which the dancer does not take a step. Sometimes the dance phrase extends over two bars, with the dancer choosing to remain still on count 5 and/or to introduce syncopation at will. It is a very sensual dance and, in its choreographed versions, very complicated.

The Tito Puente Band and dancers at the Allen Room,
at Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC

Mambo was first seen in the United States at the Park Plaza Ballroom in New York City, but became a major dance when it appeared at the Palladium Ballroom in 1947 and evolved into the dance craze of the 50’s. The Palladium became the “temple of mambo” with such dancers as “Killer Joe” Piro, Augie and Margo Rodriguez and Pedro “Killer Pete” Machito, who gave demonstrations. They added an expressive, curling use of arms, legs, hands and head to the original dance. Classes were also given. Thus, all who came could learn, feel comfortable and add their own embellishments.

One of my party in the Allen Room spent years going to the Palladium, which was on Broadway in the lower 50’s and literally “jumped.” Everyone was welcome and Wednesday was acknowledged as the “big” night. Some came in couples, but most went in a group. There were tables where waiters served customers and people with birthdays had cakes. The Joe Valle band was in residence for years; in addition to the mambo, he was a specialist in singing the bolero, a slower ballad.

There were two clubs in the Bronx, one of which was the Tropicana, and in the other boroughs as well. Another popular one in Manhattan, in addition to The China Doll and Birdland, was Caborojena on Broadway and 145th Street. This attracted mostly Latinos. A woman who was collecting contact information in the Allen Room told us her parents had met there; her father walked in and saw her mother dancing on a table.

Much of the current resurgence of the mambo can be credited to Eddie Torres, a professional ballroom dancer and teacher and a self-proclaimed post-Palladium mambo fanatic, who performed with Tito Puente. He originally learned to dance during the second wave of the mambo craze in the 60’s and 70’s. Then, at the Hunts Point Palace in the Bronx, young dancers could come from noon to midnight for five dollars and participate in dance and pie eating contests. He credits his real knowledge of the mambo to an older professional ballroom dancer named June Laberta, who forced him to learn the theory behind the music, thus enabling him to choreograph. He says the “hottest” club in the 70’s was Tony Ramon’s Corso, where Puente was among the featured bands.

Torres and his wife Maria started the evening by offering a brief class in mambo technique, which he taught with great clarity. He and Maria were also among the demonstrators in a style that was soft, flowing and quiet in its rhythmic complexity, but included fast turns and circles around the floor. Delille Thomas, a mambo dancer and choreographer who has appeared internationally and was part of the 1996 Summer Olympics, performed with a partner. His smooth, effortless dancing seemed related to the old soft shoe and one could almost feel the Haitian influence in his style. Another dancer was Freddie Rios, one part of a group called Cha Cha Aces. His clear quick steps brought to mind some outstanding tap dancer.

In watching the couples on the dance floor, it was easy to spot the older ones, some of them from the Palladium era, because of their quiet, understated style. The younger dancers, many in number, had obviously taken classes and were adding the circling arms and more complicated breaks.

Ron McGugins, the producer and mastermind behind this first mambo evening, has great hopes of returning this dance gift to the city. He plans another such party in the Spring. Come and enjoy!

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