Last year, The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation regaled listeners with ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah, an eclectic and offbeat anthology that breathed life into the concept of a holiday-themed compilation. With its mission “to look at Jewish history and the Jewish experience through recorded sound” firmly in mind, the organization this year has released another two-disc set that lives up to the much-overused word unique. Whereas last year’s release focused on the relationship in song between Christmas and Hanukkah, the colorfully-titled It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba (RSR 021) explores an even less familiar topic: the shared history of Latin and Jewish music. The ties between the two cultures run quite deep, as this set shows over the course of its 41 tracks recorded between 1947 and 1983 and arranged in chronological fashion.
Vocal and instrumental performances sit side by side on It’s a Scream, which takes its title from the 1952 novelty by the saucy Ruth Wallis. It’s one of many such novelties here, but they transcend that label in the context of Idelsohn’s presentation. The oldest tracks fall into this category, such as Irving Kaufman’s “Moe the Schmo Takes a Rhumba Lesson,” sung in character as Kaufman’s favorite schmo (or schmoe) and transferred from a crackly 78. Another is The Barry Sisters’ “Channah from Havanna” dating to the mid-fifties. The punchline of this comic story-song still can bring a smile. Mickey Katz, Yiddish comedian, klezmer clarinetist and father of Joel Grey, is represented with the lively and goofy “My Yiddishe Mambo” (not “My Yiddishe Mama,” for sure!) in which he uses his arsenal of exaggerated voices and pulls out all of the showbiz stops.
Fans of the big-band sound will find plenty to delight in here, from leaders including Xavier Cugat (“Miami Beach Rhumba,” a rhumba spin on “Autumn Leaves”), Pupi Campo (“Joe and Paul,” a Yiddish radio jingle performed by a Cuban bandleader with an arrangement by Tito Puente!), Al Gomez (“Sheyn Vi Di Levone,” a Yiddish love song in Spanish), Puente himself (“Pan, Amor Y Cha Cha Cha” with Cugat’s wife, singer Abbe Lane) and many more.
There’s also room for salsa, on tracks like “Marvelous Jew” Larry Harlow’s “Yo Soy Latino,” Eddie Palmieri’s 1963 “El Molestoso,” Willie Colon’s “Junio ‘73,” or “Hava Nageela” from salsa queen Celia Cruz. Cruz’s exciting take, from 1964, isn’t the only spin on the traditional “Hava Nagila” here, either. The Hebrew folk song went merengue in 1972 by Dominican pianist Damiron, and got a rock-and-roll makeover when it was crossed with a dance sensation by bandleader Perez Prado to become “The Twist of Hava Nageela” in 1962! Early doo-wopping rock-and-rollers The Crows (“Gee”) even got into Latin/Jewish fusion with 1954’s punning “Mambo Shevitz (Man Oh Man).”
We have plenty more on this musical exchange of cultures after the jump!
This irresistible travelogue frequently takes you to the Catskills resorts of days gone by – think Dirty Dancing – with musical tips of the hat to The Concord and Grossinger’s resorts with Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra’s “Mambo La Concord” and Tito Puente and His Orchestra’s “Grossinger’s Cha Cha Cha,” respectively. An imaginary resort, The Merengue Manor, is the setting of Johnny Conquet’s “Matzoh Ball Merengue.” Brassy horns, slinky piano and nonstop drums provide the soundtrack.
Other stops on this jubilant cross-cultural trip are paid to Brazil (the pioneering bossa nova of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado,” composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim), the Brill Building (Little Eva’s “Uptown,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) and Broadway. From the MGM LP Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin comes Joe Quijano’s cha-cha version of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s reverent “Sabbath Prayer.” Even more boisterous is La Lupe’s 1966 samba-flavored recording of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s caustic “America” from West Side Story.
These crate-diggers have done their homework in establishing the Jewish/Latin connection on less-expected tracks like Mongo Santamaria’s hit version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” The trumpet solo, played by the Jewish Marty Seller, made it a ripe candidate for inclusion. Jazz aficionados might also appreciate the tasty treatment by Cuban drummer Candido and New York tenor saxophonist Al Cohn of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” or the irreverent “Loco” from Don Tosti and Raul Diaz. This riff on a smoky lounge ballad is a bit meshugenah, bouncing between English, Spanish and Yiddish! More straightforward is Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass’ “Belz Mein Shtetele Belz (My Home Town)” from the group’s 1968 chart-topper The Beat of the Brass. The Hungarian-Jewish Alpert’s immediately recognizable, laid-back trumpet dominated the airwaves even in the post-British Invasion sixties and popularized many Latin trademarks – by way of breezy L.A. pop – in the Tijuana Brass’ recordings.
In addition to Alpert, other familiar pop names here include the late (and much-missed) Eydie Gorme, daughter of Sephardic Jews and wife of Steve Lawrence, née Sidney Liebowitz. When not playing Vegas’ best showrooms or scoring hits like Mann and Weil’s “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” Gorme had a second career recording Spanish-language music with Mexico City’s Trio Los Panchos. Their signature “Sabor a Mi” is a welcome inclusion here. The Jewish Carole King, like many of her Brill Building cohorts, had brought Latin touches to her New York “uptown soul” arrangements. Her upbeat Spanish-language “Corazón,” recorded in 1973 after she’d left New York for the cozier environs of Laurel Canyon, makes her appreciation of the big city melting pot even clearer.
It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba is packaged in a DVD-sized digipak with a squarebound, illustrated 44-page book. It includes four essays (one a compilation of quotes) each illuminating the Jewish/Latin relationship and boasts track-by-track liner notes. Oddly absent, however, is discographical annotation and credit to the composers and lyricists of each song, though those tidbits are sometimes referred to within the text of the notes. Album covers and artist photographs are also featured. Gary Hobish has remastered all tracks for this fine presentation.
Though not seasonally-themed like last year’s release from the Idelsohn Society, It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba just might be a perfect stocking stuffer for the musical archaeologists in your family or circle of friends. The concept may be high-minded, but the resulting album is just plain fun, too. One need not be of Jewish or Latin heritage to apply; the songs here show that musicality, humor and high spirits transcend all other differences.
- Moe the Schmoe Takes a Rhumba Lesson – Irving Kaufman (c. 1947)
- Arriba (Part One) – The Barton Brothers (1947)
- Miami Beach Rhumba – Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra (1947)
- Joe and Paul – Pupi Campo and His Orchestra (1949)
- Sheyn Vi Di Levone – Al Gomez Orchestra (1950)
- It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba – Ruth Wallis (1952)
- Mambo – For Dancers Only – Alfredito and His Orchestra (1953)
- Mambo Shevitz (Man Oh Man) – The Crows with Molino and His Orchestra (1954)
- Cheek to Cheek – Candido feat. Al Cohn (1956)
- Meshugenah Mambo – Slim Gaillard (1956)
- Channa from Havanna – The Barry Sisters (c. 1956)
- My Yiddishe Mambo – Mickey Katz (1958)
- Pan, Amor y Cha Cha Cha – Abbe Lane with Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1958)
- Mambo La Concord – Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra (1958)
- Matzoh Ball Merengue – Johnny Conquet, His Piano and Orchestra (1958)
- Grossinger’s Cha Cha Cha – Tito Puente and His Orchestra (1959)
- Raleigh Riff – The La Plata Sextette (1959)
- Loco (Ballad) – Don Tosti with Raul Diaz (c. 1950s)
- Mambo Chicano – Rene Birch (1959)
- The Twist of Hava Nageela – Perez Prado (1962)
- Desafinado – Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)
- Uptown – Little Eva (1962)
- Exodus – Ray Barretto (1962)
- El Molestoso – Eddie Palmieri y Su Conjunto “La Perfecta” (1963)
- Watermelon Man – Mongo Santamaria (1963)
- Sabor a Mi – Eydie Gorme with Trio Los Panchos (1964)
- Hava Nageela – Celia Cruz con Orquesta (1964)
- Sabbath Prayer (Plegaria) – Joe Quijano (1965)
- Tema Alegre – The Alegre All-Stars (1965)
- America – La Lupe (1966)
- Just Another Guajira – Mark Weinstein (1967)
- Belz Mein Shtetele Belz (My Home Town) – Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1968)
- Cucaraca Macara – Harvey Averne (1971)
- Ghetto Brothers Power – The Ghetto Brothers (1971)
- Y Volvere – Ron Eliran (1972)
- Hava Nagila – Dameron (1972)
- Tojo – Pete Yellin (1973)
- Junio ‘73 – Willie Colon (1973)
- Corazon – Carole King (1973)
- Me Llevo a la Marina – Andy Harlow’s Latin Fever (1976)
- Yo Soy Latino – Larry Harlow (1983)