Traditional Jewish tunes get Afro-Cuban redux

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LISA MULLINS: For our Global Hit today, a mix of Afro-Cuban drums and lilting Jewish pop tunes from the mid-1900s. Lonny Shavelson has this story.

LONNY SHAVELSON: A couple of weeks ago at Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco, the rhythm of the opening song was very Latin. Actually, a Cuban-Colombian pachanga. But with a twist. Still a pachanga, but the language is Yiddish. The song from Jewish theater in New York around 1928. The question is, how did such a meshugunah musical mashup of Jewish Latin Jazz happen? First of all, Jewish music of the early 1900s wasn't just Jewish.

JEREMY LOCKWOOD: There's no question in my mind that Yiddish folk songs were very, very heavily influenced by pop music.

SHAVELSON: That's Jeremy Lockwood, a New York musician dedicated to reclaiming the roots of Jewish music. He says Jewish music has always reflected the culture in which Jews live.

LOCKWOOD: That's just what Jewish music is. There's never a period when you have pure Jewish music, except if you go back 2000 years ago or something.

SHAVELSON: So the popular Jewish music of the 1930s resembled American pop music. Take this hit, written by the Jewish composer Sholom Secunda for Yiddish theater, then made famous by the Andrews Sisters, who were Greek Orthodox. Pop music, Jewish music, a natural match. To make the leap to Latin Jewish Music, first head to Cuba. Before the 1959 revolution, the island was vacation heaven for moneyed east-coasters.

LARRY HARLOW: The Jewish people were really affluent enough to go to Havana on vacation and learn the cha cha and the mambo.

SHAVELSON: Larry Harlow is a famous Latin salsa musician. Raised a Jew in New York in the early 1940s, he heard Latin music streaming out from the bars and bodegas, and later gained his musical chops by traveling to Cuba to play with the greatest salseros. Back in the US he, like other Latin musicians, took gigs where he could find them, including the summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains, the warm weather playground of New York Jews.

HARLOW: We played rumba, like a Miami beach rumba, something like that, but didn't play any Jewish music.

SHAVELSON: What followed came to be called the Mambo Mania of the �40s. In some sense it was a Jewish movement at places like Broadway's Palladium Ballroom, nicknamed the Temple of Mambo. The preachers were Latin musicians, the congregation, often Jews.

HARLOW: So the Jews really kept the music going.

SHAVELSON: And it was inevitable that somebody was going to spot a new market for record sales. Jews were buying Latin music, why not make an album of Jewish-Latin music? First came the recording Bagels and Bongos, by Irving Fields. And then, in 1961, Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos. Here's what happened to the Andrews Sisters Bei Mir Bist Du Schein.

ARTURO O'FARRILL: Definitely a hybrid occurred. Something that was neither Latin nor jazz nor Jewish.

SHAVELSON: Arturo O'Farrill is a Latin jazz musician born in Mexico, raised in New York. He says Jewish Latin music would make no sense if there wasn't a true musical correspondence between the two styles.

O'FARRILL: There's a lot of similarities in terms of modes and scales and rhythms. The freilach rhythm is really very closely related to the dotted quarter rhythm that is so prevalent in all of Latino music.

SHAVELSON: Which brings us back to the recent performance at Yoshi's Jazz Club. O'Farrill has been so intrigued by this Jewish Latin fusion that he gathered a band at Yoshi's to reconfigure the songs from the 1961 Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos.

O'FARRILL: There's a piece of music in the show called Frellach a Nacht, and the rhythm starts with bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, so it does freilach rhythm, and what I did I said let's make it a huahuanc� rhythm, very Afro-Cuban kind of rhythm that has a dink, dink, dink. My, God, they're so similar they're kissing cousins. What is Jewish Culture? Jewish culture is a hodge podge of influences and worlds. What is music? It's the same thing.

SHAVELSON: For The World, I'm Lonny Shavelson

MULLINS: The �meshugenah mix� of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen and Latin jazz is on our website, TheWorld.org. From the Nan and Bill Harris studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Lisa Mullins. Thanks for listening.