A life in salsa. Ira Goldwasser, aka, Dr. Salsa, has been an ardent salsa missionary for decades, and we are very happy to shine some well deserved light on one of our finest soldiers of mambo. Dr. Salsa and his wife and partner, Harriet Broekman, longtime devotees of Latin music, were even broadcasters of Afro-Cuban music when they had hosted the shows Mambo!, and Dr. Salsa’s Jazz Latino on Netherlands Nationwide FM radio, De Concertzender Nederland. Keep dancing, Ira. We love ya.
The following article, originally appeared in the Dutch arts and entertainment magazine Vpro Gids November 2010, has been translated here to English.
by Armand Serpendi
On VPRO TV this weekend special focus on Latin American music. In Vrije GeIuiden (Free Sounds) Ira Goldwasser and Harriett Broekman, alias Dr. and Mrs. Salsa, will be dancing the MAMBO.
lt’s a cosy household in the Goldwasser home in North Bergen, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The whole family dancing to the Jump and Jive of Louis Jordan, the rhumba-mambo~conga of Xavier Cugat, and the roof completely Ievitates when an acquaintance of the family shows up with an authentic Mambo, Abaniquito, Tito Puente‘s first hit kicking off the Mambo craze in New York City. It’s Latin all throughout the USA. Europe has been cut-off as a musical-cultural source in the aftermath of the Second World War, and North American ears are turned to South America …Brazil, the Caribbean and Cuba. lt’s the dawn of the Mambo Craze, everyone doin’ and recording the Mambo… Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como and hundreds of African American groups. A Hit-Machine cranked-up by it‘s infectious syncopated rhythm, created by contrabassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez and tresero Arsenio Rodriguez in Cuba and popularized by Cuban pianist and orchestra leader Perez Prado, King of the Mambo. It is in New York City that the mambo was elevated to a higher level in the I950’s by the orchestras of “The Big Three”: Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
Ira Goldwasser: “Prado had taken off the sharp edges so that everyone was capable of dancing to the mambo. For American feel/feet the accent was placed on the first beats of the measure; dancing on the two, the off-beat, from which the mambo derives it’s special driving character, was for most, harder. On two was for the insiders in New York. They crowded together downtown, Times Square, on the comer of 53rd. and Broadway, in the PaIIadium Ballroom (1946-1966), Home of the Mambo. Puerto Ricans, Cubans, African Americans, Jews, and Italians danced their socks off to the incendiary live sounds and transposed the ballroom into the first non-segregated hot spot in America. Black and white went at it together, ‘cause this music was something else! You went out to the Palladium well dressed… form-fitting suits and dresses, delicate shoes and your best fragrance. The famous were there: Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Sammy Davis Jr. And the jazz-cats: Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker — who were blowing bebop just around the corner in Bop City and Birdland.”
Pain and ecstasy.
Goldwasser: “Bebop musicians loved to play along in the mambo big bands. That made the mambo jazzy, gave it that New York attitude. On the dance floor one could speak of a friendly competition. From the start it was clear who had the best moves, the most innovative improvisations. I wasn’t a top dancer, but in my own way incorporated the Dunham technique, modern dance with Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian influences. I was only 12 years old and wasn’t allowed to be there at all. But I made sure I looked older and was skillfully maneuvered upstairs into the ballroom in the shade of the illustrious show dancers Augie and Margo (Rodriguez) and Cuban Pete (Pedro Aguilar) and Millie (Donay). It was their ballet-referenced elegance that set them apart from the rest.
ln 1950 my mother had enrolled me in the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in the former Schubert Theatre rehearsal studios. There one learned the essence of Afro dance: to blend physically with the beat of the drum. The playing was live, just drummers. Every week different drummers would summon up the rhythms of Cuba and Haiti for an hour and a quarter without stopping, and we kept dancing. Caribbean slaves from the Central African Kongo-nation called up to their gods. And let me tell you, do they have gods: the ancient Greeks are scant in comparison, There is always one who can make you better.”
Goldwasser is one to know. The largest part of his life he has worked as a psychiatrist. Medical studies brought him to Amsterdam in 1960, where he met his partner Harriett Broekman: “When lra and I danced together for the first time we did the cha cha chá and l could pull it off well. I think that even if l had stood on my head with wooden shoes on, he would have liked me too. We‘ve been dancing together now for half a century and then you learn quite a bit.”
While in New York City Salsa became the new marketing term for Afro Cuban dance music. In our country there was not much going on. There was Max Woiski Sr. (BB met R) and Max Woiski Jr, who performed in his club La Tropicana with a Surinam-Dutch band,” Broekman remembers. “But you were not permitted to dance. People were driven to jump up but they were immediately shoved back into their chairs. ln 1976, we heard of the band Salsa de Amsterdam. We helped them along. But the promotion did not go smoothly, as we constantly had to explain what Salsa was. And then there was Iboya, the place that transported the style of the Palladium days to Amsterdam. Here, the Latin bands played. It was remarkable how high the level of performance could be here, as long as there was a steady place to perform. The scene blossomed in front of our eyes: Antillians, Surinamese and Dutch people together making the style on the dance floor enormously animated.”
The live music on stages such as lboya and De Kroeg, making Amsterdam the Salsa center of Europe for a while, has now given up it‘s place to djs and dance schools. Salsa and Latin dance have been standardized and the dancers often think more about their practiced stylized steps and combinations then the feeling and improvising to the tumbao (basic beat). Dance tighter and don’t take up half the dance floor,” Broekrnan remarks. “it‘s about the foot work and for that, one doesn’t need more than one square meter.”
In New York City, as well, there are noticeably less spots to dance to live music, but they have not disappeared at all,” Dr. and Mrs. Salsa discover yearly. “ln small side streets in East Harlem there are happening clubs with so many musicians that there‘s little room left over to dance. First, there are 4 singers and behind them 5 trombonists, more musicians join in …thats the real Salsa stuff, then you’ve got mambo! Mambo is a happening, a magical moment, an audiotopia.