Bagels and Bongos: The Klezmatics Present Havana Nagila

With their new project, the boundary-breaching klezmer band revives and extends the Jewish-Latin musical connection.

“Play ‘Hava Nagila’!” shouted a man sitting in the front row at the concert “Havana Nagila”, the Jewish/Latin mashup the Klezmatics presented March 23 at New York’s Town Hall. The request startled Frank London, a co-founder and the trumpeter and keyboardist of the innovative klezmer-based band. “Play ‘Hava Nagila’?” he incredulously replied. “We already did — two songs ago!”

But what the Klezmatics — and the guest musicians who accompanied them at the show — actually played was “Holiday Mambo”, which borrows the familiar melody of the Hebrew song that has been a staple of countless weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Written by the great Cuban-born composer and bandleader Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, “Holiday Mambo” exemplifes the mix of Jewish-Latin musical idioms at the heart of the Klezmatics’ smartly conceived and splendidly executed concert. And at Town Hall, leading the performance on piano, was Arturo O’Farrill, the composer’s son and a leading figure in contemporary Latin jazz.

The “Havana Nagila” rubric is funny and catchy, a great marketing tag. There certainly were laughs during the show, especially when the Klezmatics and company served up “My Yiddishe Mambo”, a comic number from the 1950s bandleader Mickey Katz. (“She’s baking her challes for Noro Morales,” goes one line, about a Jewish mambonik crazy about Latin musicians like Morales, a pianist popular during the 1940s and ’50s).

It’s easy to joke about “bagels and bongos” — the title of a popular 1959 album by pianist Irving Fields, quoted by Frank London at Town Hall. Humor, in fact, always has been part of the genre; the recent compilation It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rumba is full of tracks with titles like “Mambo Shevitz (Man, Oh Man)” and “Matzoh Ball Merengue”. But Jewish-Latin musical marriages weren’t all yuks: they often eschewed comedy altogether, and even a novelty number like Katz’s “My Yiddishe Mambo” had a great and autentico Latin arrangement.

In the mid-20th century, urban Jews, mostly in the New York City area, acquired a taste for Afro-Cuban dance music. They mambo’ed and cha-cha-cha’ed at clubs like Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom, to bands led by Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians such as Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, and Machito. (Italian Americans, like my parents, also were a big part of the scene — Irving Fields made another album called Pizzas and Bongos — but that’s another, albeit related, story.) Latin bands were hugely popular at resorts in the Catskills, and were much in demand for weddings and other Jewish celebrations. Jewish musicians took up Latin styles (Larry Harlow, a pianist born Lawrence Ira Kahn, is regarded as one of the greatest salsa players) and Latin musicians played Jewish tunes.

Left to right: Arturo O’Farrill, Lisa Gutkin, Paul Morrissett, Lorin Sklamberg, Gregg August, Matt Darriau, Richuie Barshay, Frank London (Photo by Luiz C. Ribeiro)

At Town Hall, the Klezmatics (and their guests) brought passion, commitment, and uncommon musical intelligence to their latest project. Their joy in performing the music was obvious and for the delighted audience, contagious — the only time London stopped grinning was when he was playing trumpet. They masterfully mixed genres, Judaizing the Latin music and Latinizing the Jewish pieces. Introducing “Siboney”, the Cuban standard by Ernesto Lecuona, vocalist Lorin Sklamberg said, “Of course we’re going to do it as a Romanian hora.” They combined Lecuona’s tune with a standard from the Yiddish songbook, “Mein Shetele Belz”, and it worked. Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, the beguiling Argentinian singer Sophia Rei in Spanish, their voices and the two melodies, meshing surprisingly well.

The set opened with all 12 musicians — the six Klezmatics and their guests — on stage, looking like nothing but a Latin orchestra. There were three percussionists (Klezmatic Richie Barshay on drum kit, and Reinaldo De Jesus and Carlos Maldonado on congas, bongos and timbales), violinists (Lisa Gutkin and salsa stalwart Lewis Kahn, a veteran of the Fania All-Stars, with Klezmatic Paul Morrissett occasionally adding a third fiddle), a standup bassist (Gregg August), a trombonist (Reut Regev, from Tel Aviv), and a pianist (O’Farrill). There were a couple of stringed instruments, including an Argentine charanga, on stage waiting to be played (by Sklamberg and Rei). But there also was an accordion and a tsimbl (hammered dulcimer), more typical of Eastern European Jewish bands.

The show opened with the percussionists playing rumba, powerful triple- and double-time rhythms guided by the five-beat clave pattern. That segued to two Jewish pieces, “Eliyahu Hanavi” and “Zol Shoyn kumen di geule”. London described the opening selections as an “invocation of all sorts of spirits”, and they came across as spiritual and earthy, traits Cuban and Jewish music share. The next piece, “Yo Riboyn Olam”, had a North African feel, with its sinuous melody and bongos that evoked Moroccan darbukas. Sklamberg, singing in Aramaic, deployed his supple tenor to thrilling effect, earning one of the evening’s biggest ovations.

The ensemble strayed from the Havana connection on several numbers, from Argentina and Spain. Sophia Rei, accompanying herself on charanga guitar, sang lead on “EL Humahuaqueño”, a song recorded by Max Zalkind, a Polish Jewish immigrant to Argentina who performed it in Yiddish. Darriau brought Andean flavor to the piece, making his flute sound like a quena, an instrument associated with the folk-based nueva cancion genre.

The band returned to the Zalkind repertoire with “Vagabunden Lid”, a prisoner’s lament. “It’s a very depressing song,” Sklamberg observed. “But the tune…” The arrangement, with three violins, played by Klezmatics Lisa Gutkin and Paul Morrissett, and Lewis Kahn, recalled a Cuban charanga orchestra.

From the Klezmatics’ repertoire came “Perets Tants”, one of the full-throttle, high-velocity freylekhs that the band does so brilliantly and a showcase for violinist Gutkin; and “Mermaid Avenue”, from Wonder Wheel, their Grammy-winning album of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to original music by the band. With an arrangement reminiscent of Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”, it’s an irresistibly upbeat number that makes you want to hop on the next D train to the Coney Island of Guthrie’s evocative lyrics.

The audience brought the band back for two encores, “Volver a diecisiete”, a ballad by the Chilean singer Violetta Parra sung by Sophia Rei, and “Tepl Nigun Comparsa”, another uptempo klezmer piece married to Afro-Cuban polyrhythms.

Left to right: Matt Darriau, Reut Regev, Frank London (Photo by Luiz C. Ribeiro)

Havana Nagila was successful experiment, remarkably so given how quickly it came together. After the show Frank London remarked,”I felt great about it. I mean, we were flying by the seat of our pants. Although I had been conceptualizing and planning this thing for months, we put it together literally in the two days before the show. It was rather ambitious, and everyone was on the top of their game, there were surprisingly few mistakes.”

London said the World Music Institute and Town Hall approached the Klezmatics to ask if they would create a new production for the Newish Jewish Music Festival, and he and the band proposed Havana Nagila. “We began with Cuban music and Jewish mambo,” he said, “but we ended up with a bigger, wider picture of Jewish and Latin music and culture together, going from Cuba to Latin America to different rhythms and types of songs. I’d like to take it on the road, do it a half-dozen times and then record it.”

Lorin Sklamberg said he hopes next to bring the show to the West Coast, and then possibly Europe. “We’ll probably refine it somewhat, maybe substitute some other songs. I also imagine we might play with musicians who are available regionally, because it’s expensive to travel with 12 people.”

Havana Nagila may have come together quickly, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. London and O’Farrill have known each other for 30 years, since London arrived in New York from Boston. London, in fact, played salsa before he ever played a note of Jewish music, as a trumpeter with Los Hermanos Pabon, a popular Boston-area Latin band.

London isn’t the only Klezmatic to have played Latin music. He said that Richie Barshay, the band’s drummer, felt that Havana Nagila was “the greatest concert ever for him”, because his specialties are klezmer, jazz, and Latin. Barshay and conguero Reinaldo de Jesus have played with the Curtis Brothers, a Latin jazz group. “I can say to Richie, on this guaguancó, can you lay a bulgar rhythm on this section of the tune, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about,” London said.

For London, Havana Nagila is not about “Jewish musicians playing Latin and Latin musicians playing Jewish music”, but about hybridity, the blending of forms and traditions to produce something that hadn’t existed before. The concert, he added, also was about New York, where Jewish/Latin fusion began and still lives.