In the late 1940s, the jazz scene from 52nd Street to Harlem blazed with the innovations of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. Be-bop was the language spoken in the halls of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, introduced to Afro-Cuban rhythm, incorporated the sound into his music and cu-bop--as they called it--became a part of the jazz repertoire.
But even without the help of be-bop, Latin music exploded on its own. One needed only to walk down 116th Street or 125th Street in Harlem to listen as every record shop blared the strains of Chapasau & Damaron's "Anabacoa," the earliest mambo record to hit the charts.
Clubs and halls from the Bronx to Brooklyn overflowed with dancers improvising steps to the cha-cha and in the early 1950s, this reader thought nothing of going to the old Broadway Palladium four nights out of seven to cheer for "Killer Joe" Piro whose fancy footwork captured the imagination of a generation.
So it was a pleasure to read "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." Against this background of Latin and jazz, Oscar Hijuelos, a writer of considerable talent, introduces Nestor and Cesar Castillo, two brothers newly arrived from Batista's Cuba to make their way in New York's music world.
At that time, the Cuban nightclubs and casinos--controlled by American gangsters, where white musicians entered through one door and mulatto and black musicians entered through another and the pay was wretched for all--offered no future.
Told in a series of flashbacks through the eyes of Cesar, the older brother, this story bares two dramatic struggles: of Nestor, who loved too much, and Cesar, who never learned how.
The story opens with Cesar, now a physical and emotional wreck at age 64, holed up in a small room in the seedy Hotel Splendour on 125th Street in Harlem, the scene of many of his past rendezvous. He has brought with him a battered cane suitcase containing some old recordings, faded photos, and letters--mementos from his glory days as the Mambo King. He has also brought a huge quantity of whiskey with which he plans to drink himself to quick and merciful death rather than continue to suffer the ravages of end-stage congestive heart failure.
The first quarter of the novel is crammed with more than enough information to satisfy any musicologist interested in the 1950s scene. This is written in an almost scholarly style but when Hijuelos describes the death of the legendary drummer, Chano Pozo, even though told thirdhand by another musician, it is a powerful rendering: "I remember when Chano died. I was down on 52nd Street when I heard the whole thing. Chano was up on 116th Street at the Caribbean Bar and Grill, looking for this man who'd sold him some bad stuff. That was in the morning. He'd injected it, gotten sick, and then later went out on the street looking for him. He found him in that bar, pulled a knife on him, and demanded his money back. Now, the man wasn't afraid of Chano and Chano wasn't afraid of the man; Chano had already been shot up and stabbed in Havana and had survived it, you know, so that Chano took his knife out and lunged at the man, even though he'd pulled out a gun: Chano kept coming at him because he thought the spirits were protecting him, but these spirits, Yoruba spirits, couldn't stop the bullets from tearing him up and that was that."
Cesar and Nestor arrive in New York at a time "When every Cuban knew each other" and, after sitting in with other bands, decide to form their own group, the Mambo Kings. They play the halls and clubs and sing songs of love. The high point comes when they are discovered by Desi Arnaz who invites them to Hollywood to appear on the "I Love Lucy" show.
Here, the description of the technical aspects of television production gets in the way, slowing the forward action, but this is a minor complaint because the characters are so skillfully rendered. The story really comes to life when Nestor meets Delores, a young Puerto Rican girl who works as a maid for a Park Avenue man "so rich he is unhappy."
Through this relationship, we are taken via yet another flashback to Cuba, to an earlier love affair Nestor has had with Maria, "the beautiful Maria of my soul." The affair, obsessive, passionate and explicitly detailed, ends before the brothers emigrate but this love remains the source of Nestor's melancholia.
By turns, Cesar reflects on his own tumultuous relationships. His short, unhappy marriage ended in disaster but his macho posture continued to play havoc with every woman he meets. While Nestor's pain is all-consuming, the Mambo King, as Cesar comes to be called, keeps right on going.
The band achieves a small measure of fame--if not fortune--in the local dance halls. Hijuelos captures in poignant detail the life of the musicians: men who work menial, sometimes back-breaking jobs during the day and play to crowded dance halls at night. The life is sad, precarious, boisterous, exciting, and sometimes dangerous.