The Moving History of Jews and Salsa

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An event at the Gershman Y brings salsa’s Jewish roots to light.

Is it possible to become a proficient salsa dancer in just one hour? To anyone watching the transformation of 50 neophytes on July 7, the answer would have to be “si.”

In that 60-minute span, everyone inside the Gershman Y learned to use the wooden instrument called “claves” and keep a traditional 5-stroke Latin music beat — all while keeping their bodies in tune with the rhythm of the music.


As part of Siempre Salsa Philly’s week-long celebration of Latin music, these newly minted salseros and salseras were treated to a presentation from Rob Bernberg and Jesse Bermudez, who traced the roots of Latin music and its Jewish influences in “The Jewish Side of Salsa” at the Gershman Y.

Bernberg and Bermudez focused their discussion on five Jewish DJs from New York credited with expanding the reach of Latin music in America: Art “Pancho” Raymond, who co-owned Latin music label Tico Records, Joe Gaines, Dick “Ricardo” Sugar, Roger Dawson and Sid Torin, otherwise known as Symphony Sid.

And there was one other key Jewish figure: Larry Harlow, “El Judio Maravilloso” (“The Marvelous Jew”), a legendary musician particularly famous for expanding the instrumentation of salsa’s sound today.

“This music builds bridges between people and cultures from all walks of life,” said Bernberg, a retired lawyer who said Latin music is his “tzedakah.”

“This music is for everyone,” he said.

Bernberg, co-owner of Latin Beat Magazine, and Bermudez, founder of Philadelphia music education organization Artístas y Músicos Latino Americanos (AMLA), joined together with Carlos Sanchez of Orquesta del Barrio to create initiative Siempre Salsa Philly in order to introduce Philadelphians to the wealth of authentic salsa music at their footsteps.

Bermudez, who also owns 24-hour Latin music radio station RayJess.com, said he feels that Latin music is something “everybody should be exposed to,” which is a goal Siempre Salsa Philly is trying to accomplish.

Differentiating between “Latin music” and “salsa” was a running theme throughout the presentation on the music movement’s history. “Salsa” does refer to song and dance, but it is also a coined term, not a rhythm, as many often think.

“Many people hear the word ‘salsa’ but don’t know much about it,” Bermudez said.

The genre’s beginnings have deep roots in Cuba and Puerto Rico, primarily in the 1950s and ’60s as Bernberg and Bermudez outlined, crediting immigrants and performers from the two countries who moved to New York and brought their musical influences with them. The term “salsa” was officially coined and used in New York on the radio in the 1970s, which spread the reach of the music in America even further. Resorts in the Catskills often hosted dance and music performances from Latin musicians beginning in the 1960s — Harlow often played the Jewish resorts in the area as a teenager.

It has elements from many musical genres fused into it from that decade, including mambo, cha-cha and jazz. In the 1960s, elements of rock and roll and R&B began appearing as well. Think “Latin soul” music, Bernberg said.

“It’s like when you’re cooking a sauce with all these ingredients — salsa has all these elements,” Bernberg said.

After learning about music history, Bermudez and Bernberg introduced the audience to Larry Harlow with a short documentary about the famed Fania All-Stars bandleader and his influence on salsa that can still be felt today.

Harlow was born Ira Kahn to a musically inclined Jewish family in New York — his mother was an opera singer and his father was an orchestra leader. But he was more influenced by the “musica Latina” he would hear as he walked to the city’s famed High School of Music and Art.

This fascination with the music led him to Havana, Cuba in the 1950s where he studied Afro-Cuban music. Upon his return, he formed a band upon his return to New York, which was signed to Fania Records. He began incorporating the percussion, trumpet, trombone and other sounds that give Latin music its distinctive sound.

The music he created helped launch the careers of other Latin music performers featured in the film, such as Ismael Miranda. Harlow is also credited with creating the Latin Grammy awards to honor Latin music.

The history of salsa in the Catskills and the dancing in the hotels there evoked a few pop culture references for some attendees.

“It reminded me of the movie Dirty Dancing,” said Jackie Swartz.

Swartz, from Rydal, came to the event to learn more about the connection between the Jewish community and salsa.

“So many of the people were Jewish that supported the increase and interest in salsa, and the Catskills was a very big support,” she said.

Learning about the historical role Jews played in creating the popularity of salsa was a way to show people diversity in Judaism, said Maxine Gaiber, executive director of the Gershman Y. The event was presented in collaboration with the organization’s current “Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean” photography series.

“I hope it teaches people a new aspect of Judaism that they may not have known about,” she said.

Guests spilled out into the entrance hall of the building after the presentation — and after snacking on chips and salsa — to be treated to a free salsa dance lesson from instructor Kim Allen from La Palma Dance Studio in Port Republic, N.J.

“It was taught well. I thought the dance portion was really great,” said Karen Kantor, executive director of Temple Beth Am on Old York Road.

Forty members from Beth Am will be going on a trip to Cuba in November to celebrate Cantor Elena Zarkh’s 30th year at the synagogue,

Traveling as part of a congregation is a more personal experience, Kantor said as to why they are traveling to Cuba for the anniversary. For Zarkh’s 25th year, a trip went to St. Petersburg, Russia — Zarkh’s birthplace — and the synagogue has also taken multiple trips to Israel.

These trips allow all different generations to connect with each other in ways they might not have before, and it builds a more personal relationship with the clergy, Kantor said.

To prepare for their upcoming excursion, Kantor said this event was a great way to get in touch with Cuba’s history with salsa and explore the Jewish connection.

Kantor, Zarkh and four members going on the trip — which Kantor said is full — went to the event to learn more about the connection between the Jewish community and salsa as that is something they will explore while in Cuba, particularly through religion and music.

“We’ve already had one group lesson in salsa at Socialsport Dance Club in Abington, but we wanted to learn more about salsa,” she said, adding the history component, particularly the hotels in the Catskills, was fascinating.

“What surprised me was there’s such a deep Jewish connection to the people who popularized salsa in the United States.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Another great Jewish salsa musician was Barry Rogers, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and played in Eddie Palmieri’s band La Perfecta. Rogers didn’t just play the trombone so masterfully, that Willie Colón, one of the most famous and influential Puerto Rican salseros, considered him his greatest influence, he also worked in the arrangements of many of La Perfecta’s songs.

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