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New York Daily News

BOOK REVIEW: Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York

by Gene Roman

July 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 New York Daily News, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York
By Max Salazar

309 pages, 8 pages of black and white photos
2003 Shirmer Trade Books

An imprint of the Music Sales Publishing Group
ISBN Number: 0.8256.7277.5


Music with a "latin tinge", as New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton once described it, is making another pass through Hollywood and the national consciousness. But it’s certainly not the first one.

Max Salazar, a journalist, Senior Editor at Latin Beat Magazine and a featured lecturer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, has compiled some of his finest work spanning 20 years of research and travels through mambo nation into this must have volume. Many of these writings first appeared in Latin Beat Magazine.

One of the things you’ll discover is that "Latin music began making inroads into Hollywood" thanks to the efforts of "Ralph Peer, a non-Hispanic music publisher who began recording African-American ‘race music’ in the 1920’s. Peer noticed that tunes originating in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Brazil were copyrighted and not published in the United States. He visited the Caribbean and South America and bought the copyrights for less than a dollar. In 1940 Peer was the only American to own a voluminous catalog of Latin American songs."

Twenty years later "during the summer of 1940, the course of Latin music was altered (again) when radio networks publicized their unhappiness with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) over performance rights . . . Realizing that more confrontation was bound to erupt, broadcasters established BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) in 1940 to avoid similar situations. BMI was responsible for exposing Latin music nationally.

The foundation of the book is the essay, "The Development of Latin Music in New York City." This historical survey of afro-cuban music should be required reading for all students of history, culture, politics and the arts. The book’s profiles include a comprehensive list of musicians, composers, executives and musical eras spanning the pre-mambo era of the 1940’s through two centuries of charanga and up through the origins of Salsa music. The objects of Salazar’s affection include: Tito Rodriguez, La Lupe, Hector Lavoe, Jerry Masucci, Rafael Hernandez and two of New York’s most famous dance palaces, the Palladium & Corso Ballrooms.

Quoting Tito Puente on his rivalry with Tito Rodriguez: "I had to play my best, as he was a tough competitor who always gave the public his best." Describing the support of smaller record labels after the abandonment of many artists by the majors: "The year 1943 was also when Seeco Records came into being. Sidney Siegel, the proprietor of Casa Siegel Jewelry, Furniture and Record Store at 1393 5th Avenue, which once served the thriving Jewish community of Harlem, which was now primarily Puerto Rican and Cuban, signed up artists abandoned by RCA and Columbia."

He has a special appreciation for the musical sidemen and producers who helped keep the music alive during some of its low points. His heroes include James Petrillo, the President of the American Federation of Musicians, who advocated for musicians and their financial well-being: "Thanks to Petrillo . . . music makers’ livelihood improved. In June 1942, Petrillo notified U.S. record companies that in order to insure maximum employment for the 138,000 members of his union, he would no longer allow them to make recordings that would be played again and again on jukeboxes or the radio without adequate compensation."

You’ll also learn how a former NYPD officer turned lawyer named, Jerry Masucci, established the first multi-million dollar Latin recording label called Fania Records. Masucci’s entrepreneurial vision becomes the musical launching pad for a diverse group of performers that includes: Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, Johnny Pacheco, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano. This flagship group becomes Fannie’s vehicle for introducing the Nation and the world to the fiery rhythms of Salsa music.

Salazar began his writing career in 1968 while taking literature courses at the City University of New York. This volume is the product of over twenty years of work in the field. It has earned him, I believe, the privilege and honor of being identified as the genre’s most astute and knowledgeable oral historian.

This is a book worth having in your collection if you’re new to the music or just taking a sentimental journey through your youth.

Gene Roman is a journalist and writer based in New York City. He can be reached at 718-918-2434 or

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