Latin-Jewish fusion music in the USA, mid-20th century


A post by Peter Jordens.

Code Switch, a program of National Public Radio (NPR), has just started a series about cultural interactions that have helped shape what Jewish-American identity is today. They have begun the series by featuring a conversation (10-minute audio recording) that aired on December 21, 2013 on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday about an era of music that has largely faded from memory but remains incredibly compelling: Latin-Jewish fusion music in the mid-20th century.

References are made to “Yiddish rhumba” about Jews falling in love with Cuban culture and to the two-CD set called It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba, released in November 2013 by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, which contains a collection of songs from the Latin-Jewish musical scene in the USA between the 1940s and 1980s. The Code Switch webpage includes a video with late Cuban superstar Celia Cruz singing ‘Hava Nagila’ in 1964 for Latin music record label Seeco Records — which was founded by Sidney Siegel, a Jewish man in New York.

More information:

Here is the description of the double CD It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba:

This two-CD set is the first of its kind: an in-depth historical examination of the cultural and political relationships between US Latinos and Jews through popular music! The songs feature Jewish artists engaging with Latin styles, and Latino artists engaging with Jewish themes, following the evolution of a musical relationship from early 20th-century novelty songs through 1970s and 1980s salsa classics. The project includes archival images and ephemera, online oral histories, and an extensive booklet of essays written by Steve Berlin of the legendary Chicano band Los Lobos and acclaimed NYC bandleader and pianist Arturo O Farrill. The range of songs unveils a rarely documented musical genealogy of Jewish-Latino musical interchange in the US, moving from early Yiddish rhumba records by Irving Kaufman and the Barton Brothers up through the Catskills mambo experiments of top Latin bandleaders like Machito and Tito Puente, ‘Hava Nagila’ makeovers by legends like Celia Cruz and Damiron, the influential band innovations of Eddie Palmieri, and the 1970s salsa output of artists like Larry Harlow, dubbed El Judio Maravilloso [the Marvelous Jew] by his Latino bandmates.

The two-CD set includes 45 pages of liner notes that address the question: How is it that Jewish and Latin culture came together to create music with an influence that extended far beyond the borscht belt and the Scarsdale and Boca Raton bar mitzvah circuit? The complete CD track listing is available at

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