I came of age at just the right time to enjoy Celia Cruz — the greatest female singer salsa has ever produced — in her prime, and for her to help shape my lifelong musical tastes. Without her knowing it, she once helped get me out of a frightening situation in a drug-saturated Peruvian river town.
Some 40 years ago — between doo-wop and the Beatles — rock and roll was at a boring low point. Jazz did little for me (I preferred dancing over laid-back listening), and so somehow, this middle-class Jewish kid from Queens became a “mambonik.”
The late DJ Symphony Sid, himself a Jew, was my radio mentor. Fidel Castro inadvertently supplied the talent by prompting scores of Cuba’s top musicians to seek asylum in the United States. Celia Cruz, who died July 16 of brain cancer at 78, was one of them.
“Latin,” the pre-salsa term we used, is party music, and I spent countless evenings dancing and partying (and doing things I hope my teenage son never emulates) at Manhattan’s long-gone Palladium Ballroom. Sunday afternoons were spent at Basin Street East, and the days and nights in between were often spent cruising clubs and dancehalls from Brooklyn to the Bronx. And my parents wondered why I flunked out of City College.
Curiously, Latin also became a Borscht Belt mainstay, providing the inspiration for the storyline for the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing.” I recall seeing Cruz backed by the legendary band La Sonora Matancera at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg, N.Y. It was an unforgettable night for the scores of young Jewish waiters, busboys and bellhops — and probably equally forgettable for the hotel’s long-time paying customers who cared far more for tumblers than timbales. A few of my fellow travelers opted to dive full time into the music. One was the popular bandleader Larry Harlow, “El Judeo Maravilloso,” as he bills himself.
Flash back to the night in 1974 when I was in the Peruvian Amazon town of Pucallpa — literally the end of the long road that made its way over the Andes from Lima and through coca country. I was there with a friend from Omaha named Judy (another Jew). Our plan was to travel downriver to Iquitos (where a community of Jewish merchants had once thrived) on our way into remote Indian territory, but that meant days of waiting for a departing riverboat.
Pucallpa then was a steamy frontier town frequented by drug dealers, prostitutes, hustlers and backpackers. Its streets were muddy trails, and its $1 hotel rooms offered scampering lizards but no fans. Too uncomfortable to sleep, Judy and I went looking that night for a cafe. Only one was open, and we took an outside table. I knew immediately I had made a mistake.
Judy was the only woman, and a gringa to boot. I, of course, was the only gringo. The one on-duty local cop was smoking marijuana and drinking beer with the roughest-looking guys there, all of them eyeing Judy as they drew me into conversation. He won’t help me, I recall thinking of the cop.
But there was a jukebox stacked with great salsa, including Cruz and Harlow. Desperate for a human connection, I started jabbering in my limited Spanish about growing up in New York and listening and dancing to salsa. I topped it off by saying that I knew both Larry and Celia (I lied about her). The macho men eyed me suspiciously.
I put money in the jukebox and played some tunes. My selections prompted some of the guys to take notice, but prompted others to ask Judy to dance. Not a good thing, I concluded, and after a bit I cut in nervously to keep her out of anybody else’s arms. I started to dance. And dance. And dance. I figured we were relatively safe as long as we kept moving.
Three decades ago I could still move pretty well on the dance floor, even when mortified. I hoped — prayed desperately is probably more like it — my dancing would give me an air of anti-macho machismo that would be understandable in local cafe culture and provide acceptance. And it did. No longer an outsider, my female friend was no longer fair game. It was now safe to indulge with the local cop.
My misspent youth had paid off. Cruz and Harlow had bailed me out. How sweet! Or as Cruz would say, azucar!
Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths). He lives in Annapolis, Md.