Kid Lit Review of “¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!:  The Dance That Crossed Color Lines”  by Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins brings us an account for kids about how a new music and dance craze helped create social change for the better.

In 1940s New York, he writes, “People from different neighborhoods weren’t supposed to mix. Not at dances and not in many other ways.”

But the forces of segregation couldn’t compete with the universal appeal of the music of Machito and His Afro-Cubans with their new sound. As the Library of Congress explains, the group combined Afro-Cuban rhythms, improvisation, and big band jazz to form something entirely new, and seemingly irresistible.

Portrait of Machito and his sister Graciella Grillo, Glen Island Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947, from the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

New York Latin Culture Magazine relates that the unique arrangement caught fire in 1942, after Machito and his Afro-Cubans, with music director Mario Bauzá, cut “Tanga,” the first jazz recording in clave, essentially the beginning of “Latin Jazz”:

“It had a rhythm section of conga, bongo and timbales, and gave the timbales a more central role. It was Cuban music arranged as jazz. It was a big band sound in Cuban music. It incorporated improvised jazz soloing in Cuban music and broke the three-minute song mold for Latin music.”

The word clave, pronounced clah-vay, designates a rhythmic pattern originating in sub-Saharan African musical traditions, named after the traditional two-stick percussion instrument.

Playing claves, via Wikipedia

The clave sound, which is repeated throughout the song, forms the foundation for other musicians in an ensemble, and invariably makes listeners want to move in time with the beat. The clave is the fundamental rhythm of Latin music including reggae, reggaeton, and Afro-Brazilian music.

Machito’s band included and performed with a diverse group of musicians forming the first truly multi-racial ensemble in the U.S. And a multiracial group of dancers wanted to hear them.

The author writes that all of the different ethnic groups that were traditionally separated – Italians, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Jews, and many others – longed to dance to these new rhythms. Thus they came to the same places to listen and dance in spite of their disparate backgrounds.

The Palladium Ballroom at Broadway and 53rd St. made this happen. In 1948, the author reports, the Palladium Ballroom broke the rules and opened the doors to all people, hiring Machito and his band to play. It was the first night club to open its doors to Latins. It was also the first where all races and social classes could get together.

Delighted patrons came and danced the mambo. Machito shouted from the bandstand, “¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!” The book focuses on Millie Donay, who was Italian, and Puerto Rican Pedro Aguilar, who, dancing together, became the most well-known mambo team – first at the Palladium – then in the whole country.

Millie Donay and “Cuban Pete” (Pedro Aguilar) via Ink Link

Robbins writes: “Millie and Pedro showed the world that anyone, anytime, anywhere, can dance together to Latin jazz.”

An Author’s Note gives more background on Machito, Latin jazz, and the mambo. [The mambo was developed in the 1940s in Cuba, and replaced rhumba as the most fashionable Latin dance. Later on, with the advent of salsa and its more sophisticated dancing, a new type of mambo including breakdancing steps, called “modern mambo,” was popularized in New York.] Robbins concludes with the statement that “By challenging segregation, the Palladium Ballroom set the stage for the 1950s civil rights movement.”

Award-winning illustrator Eric Velasquez adds richly detailed oil paintings that display his usual meticulous attention to historical detail. Additionally, he captures the joy and movement of dance throughout.

Evaluation: This history for readers 7 and up has an important message: we humans have much more in common than outer appearances indicate, and music is a great way to bridge the gap.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2021

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1 Response to Kid Lit Review of “¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!:  The Dance That Crossed Color Lines”  by Dean Robbins

  1. stacybuckeye says:

    Adding this to my list!

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