My Turn: Mambo On My Mind

What's an old white man like me doing teaching Afro-Cuban music, art and history? I grew up in El Paso, Texas, an early training center for a globalized world. At El Paso's Dudley School, around 1944, I saw a good-looking Mexican-American girl lead the entire school in a mass conga line. She was clearly calling us to somewhere else.

I came closer to that "somewhere else" when my father gave me my first record, a 78 of "Canto Karabalí," by the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. I had no idea what "Song of Calabar" meant, but the melody got to me. It was an acoustical Tarot card that said, "This is your future."

Growing up in a Latino/Anglo city, I heard on the local radio station soul numbers like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and from a station broadcasting from Juárez, Mexican hits like "Amor Chiquito." There was a small black population armed with boogie-woogie and the blues that would shape my mind forever. I learned how to play boogie on piano from a young man named Lloyd Stevens and marveled at the train-whistle blues and sanctified beats performed by a black El Pasoan named Jesse Brown.

In the fall of 1948 I started to study Spanish. I studied for my first test to the beat of Afro-Cuban records. When I sat down to write my exam, verbs and vocabulary came tumbling down while music played in my mind.

From that moment on, Spanish language and Afro-Cuban music took over my soul.

But a most important inspiration struck me when I arrived, with my parents and sister, for a vacation in Mexico City in March 1950. While my family crashed in the Hotel del Prado I hit the streets. I wandered into the National Palace, where I saw Diego Rivera working on a heroic mural of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Returning to the Prado I was startled to find Anthony Quinn in the elevator with me, in town filming the "The Brave Bulls." I opened the windows to my room to discover what appeared to be the Duke and Duchess of Windsor having tea across the patio. Four celebrities in 45 minutes. Something was going to happen. And it did. In the Prado dining room, I heard for the first time an exciting form of music that was to orient and anchor me forever: mambo.

Mambo is a blend: Afro-Cuban, jazz and classical. It took me from calm to excitement, like the jump from black and white into Technicolor. Mambo's hard-swinging minimalism gave me access to a style that challenged me to my very essence. Moving to the East Coast, I spent as much time as I could at the Palladium at Broadway and 53rd Street, epicenter of New York mambo.

Mambo in New York made you realize that one of the luckiest things that happened to American popular culture was the Jones Act, which bestowed U.S. citizenship on all Puerto Ricans. Two of the major New York mambo kings, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, were Puerto Rican. Songs like "La Familia" documented lives in transition from the island to New York. When Tito Rodriguez sang "En un sillón de bejuco solito me acomodé" ["In an armchair of rattan I made myself comfortable"] he brought back an aspect of Caribbean living, reassuringly cozy and Creole. The same impulse led Puerto Ricans in New York to build casitas, small, brightly painted island-style houses, in vacant lots in the Bronx or Spanish Harlem to offset the surrounding slablike tenement buildings.

I would go on to discover that mambo was dancing us all toward genuine being, becoming ourselves through caring about others. To proclaim this rich cross-cultural achievement became the goal of my teaching at Yale from the moment I started in 1964. In the '70s, mambo morphed into salsa. In 2008, it's called Latin jazz. I thank God for the Cubans, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Dominicans, Mexicans and other Latinos who keep it all going.

Mambo distills their cross-cultural insights, leading us, for example, to a Puerto Rican man who learned to live among the Anglos, Jews, Italians and Irish. In a wonderful book on his life, "Benjy Lopez: A Picaresque Tale of Emigration and Return," by Barry B. Levine, he shared this insight: "Imagine if you were twenty years old and didn't feel inferior to anybody or better than anybody. When you treat everybody the same, people open up to you." Those are words I have tried to live by.