Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mambo Chicano


For American Jews, ghosts of the past, ghosts of other worlds, languages, longer names, are part of what it means to occupy the present. How Jews embrace or ward off those lingering spirits is a prime ingredient in configuring identity. That, at least, is what Donald Weber, an old friend of Hippo’s, and a particularly inspirational one, talks about in his must-read book from earlier this year, Haunted in the New World. The haunting is what makes Jewish-American culture play its changes and duck-and-cover in its transformations — the whole Jewish chameleon, Jewish mercurian theory (check Yuri Slezkine on this for at least one particularly sweeping history). I’ve been thinking about all this while listening to Rene Bloch, a Mexican musician born to French Jews who immigrated to Sonora before they moved the family north to Los Angeles. Bloch became a primo sax man in the LA R&B scene, dropping one of THE quintessential West Coast solos when he gigged with the Johnny Otis Band on 1945’s “Harlem Nocturne.” Bloch soon set out on his own in the 50s and led a number of different Latin dance bands that were the liasons to big name East Coast players like Tito Puente , Mongo Santamria, and Perez Prado (Bloch also had a stint as the leader of Prado’s band). Bloch’s particularly interesting in the kinds of mergers he pulled off in his career: bridging the Black & Mexican scenes in 40s LA, and bridging the coastal divide of the Mexican and Latino scenes in the 50s and 60s. You can hear it loud and clear on forgotten LPs like Latin Heat With A Beat (which featured him alongside Santamaria & Willie Bobo) where he did “Las Chiquillas” and on Let’s Dance The Mambo where he trailblazed with his own Mexican-Americanization of the mambo craze on what should be a classic, “Mambo Chicano”. The haunting comes in strong years later, when Bloch digs into his Jewishness, finds Christ (I mean, Yeshua) while he’s looking for the Messiah, becomes a Messianic Jewish rabbi, and now (in his early 70s) puts out albums of Messiah tunes when he’s not leading his congregation at temple Beth Shalom in Rancho Cucamunga. The Al Jolson Story it ain’t.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

My father played and sang on some of Mr. Bloch's albums(Juan "Johnny" Cheda). It would be a pleasure to speak to or meet him sometime. (Is he still alive?) My dad passed in 1995. I have many original records in my attic....guess I will pull them out and take a listen. Cool guy. Do you know his contact info? Could you give him mine? Thanks...
Jenniffer "Cheda" Kiessling
301 592 7159

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