When the Mambo Was King
Fiery dance craze of the 1950s brought Cuban and Anglo cultures together as it spread across the US
`TO get the mambo right, you have to have it here - in the hips," says Armand Assante, who stars in the new movie "The Mambo Kings." He rises to his feet and eases into a smooth, gliding motion, his hands emphasizing the rolling moves. "It's a certain 'look,' you know? You either get it right or you don't. There's no way to fake it."Skip to next paragraph
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Instantly, one of the reporters in the room claps his hands in the characteristic rhythmic pattern called the "clave." Mr. Assante dances in place, and the impromptu concert elicits a few bravos and a round of applause.
The mambo is far more than just a musical embellishment to the movie; it's an emblem of the general cultural assimilation of Cuban immigrants into American society that has been going on since the end of World War II.
Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book was the model for the film, has just come into the lively press conference and looks on appreciatively, snapping his fingers. "The mambo was a breakthrough dance," he explains later. "It's a Latin dance that made a lot of headway in the United States in the '50s. I grew up here on the upper West Side, around Amsterdam and 118th Street, where it was happening. I'll never forget watching the mambo groups as a kid.... That memory inspired 'The Mambo
Arne Glimcher, a former art dealer, makes his directoral debut with "The Mambo Kings."
"Music has always been one of the most important ways to bring different cultures together and help them understand each other," he says. "The mambo originated as a combination of African drums from the Yoruba tribe and flamenco music from Spain. It's a little like the rumba, which began with slaves whose feet were shackled in chains. They could only move from the hips.... But the mambo is a lot more jubilant and extroverted, very open. For the Cubanos in America after the war, these dances were everythi ng - both a means of breaking into American life and ... escaping a grim workaday world."
The film depicts the musical life of two Cuban brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillon, played by Assante and Antonio Banderas. Though they work hard all week in a meat-packing plant, the musicians live for Saturday nights.
They "put on their snappiest duds, spruce up their hair with brilliantine, and go to the clubs," Glimcher says. "It was like being in another world. Then, in those days you had Desi Arnaz and the 'I Love Lucy' show. That was one of the really important things I wanted to say in 'Mambo Kings': to the Cuban community that show was not about Lucy, but about Desi. He was the of 'I Love Lucy.' He brought the Cuban musical styles into the homes of millions via the television set. [In the film] he was the grea t hero of Cesar and Nestor because he belonged to the American mainstream."
Ethno-purists at the time argued that something as uniquely Cuban as this music should not be mixed with American musical elements. But they were resisting the inevitable.