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."

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.

The Cuban dances weren't just popular in the New York clubs like Club Broadway, they became a craze all across the country. The legendary arranger Mario Bauza fused them with American jazz. They were middle-class favorites in the dance studios of Arthur Murray, in the pop music of Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado (remember "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Time"?) and, of course, a vital part of the "I Love Lucy" television series. Today, performers like Carlos Santana and Gloria Estefan continue to develop new

varieties of salsa music.

"This music is about the only thing the two Castillo brothers have in common as they try to work into American society," says Glimcher. "Otherwise, they are so different. Nestor, the sensitive, quiet artist, carries this book around called 'Forward America.' It's like so many manuals the Cubanos read about getting along in America.... His brother Cesar, on the other hand, just plunges into his new life. He's in your face all the time. He just gets on with life without thinking about it too much. But it's

the music that keeps the brothers together. It's almost a religion to them."

Novelist Hijuelos, Glimcher, and the cast members agree that "Mambo Kings" is about the importance of reconciling diverse ethnic groups. "Our movie is not for a Latin market only," Glimcher says. "No movie should be just for one ethnic type. These are universal experiences. I'm very much against any kind of isolation of cultures. These days we are seeing a dangerous moment when so many ethnic groups and sub-cultures are trying to keep their identity at the expense of advancing in society."

The project of "The Mambo Kings" from start to finish has been a blueprint of this fusion. Although of Cuban descent, Oscar Hijuelos speaks little Spanish, and he wrote the book while living in Rome. Glimcher is a Boston-trained artist who enlisted the help of German-born cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Among the cast members, Maruschka Detmers was born in Holland and educated in Paris, Mr. Banderas was brought up in Malaga, Spain, and Desi Arnaz Jr. came from Cuban and Irish parents.

Yet "Mambo Kings" has come under fire from critics who complain that none of the lead actors are Hispanic.

Assante, is, as he puts it, of "Italian-American-Irish-New Yorker" descent, and he argues ethnicity should have little to do with the art of acting.

"It is true that many non-Latinos like me appear in key roles playing Hispanics," he says, "and I was uneasy at first about playing a Cuban. I'm sure I'll be criticized for taking it on. But with the help of Tito Puente and Celiz Cruz [Latin-music legends who play themselves in the film] and others in the cast, I'm confident I've gotten it right.

"I don't endorse the kind of thinking that came out of the 'Miss Saigon' controversy, that only a person of the correct background should portray that particular character...."

George Bernard Shaw always insisted that the medium of cinema, more than any other art form, would inevitably function as a great unifier of diverse cultural types. The movies would "force people to see farther than their own noses and their own nurseries," he wrote. Only then would people "begin to have some notion of the sort of world they are living in...."

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