Friday, August 08, 2008

"Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music In New York" by Max Salazar

This book had been on my 'to acquire and study' list for a very long time. Many of the books I'd read had cited Max Salazar's work, and I was conscious of its significance. This was supported by a number of glowing reviews, but in contradiction, I found it curious when trying actually getting a hold of a copy that it was no longer in print.

Personally I had just come off the back of Ned Sublette's "The World That Made New Orleans", and was expecting a work of similar stature. Anybody who has had the pleasure of encountering Mr.Sublette's work could justifably accuse me of having unrealistic expectations.

It turns out that 'Mambo Kingdom' is a collection of articles written by Max Salazar that were previously published primarily in 'Latin Beat' magazine, with the remainder in others like 'Impacto'. This wasn't alluded to in any of the reviews that I came across.

Most of the articles are biographical and based on taped interview material between the author and the relevant artist, the latter of whom are stellar: ranging from Miguelito Valdés and Vicentico Valdés to José Curbelo (a glaring omission is Celia Cruz despite her presence during the time-span). Significant phenomena in the mambo world such as The Palladium, Charanga, and Salsa Origins are treated from the participant-observer perspective.

Max Salazar writes authoritatively and allows the reader to live the mambo times through is eyes in New York City. As temporally-spaced single articles, they might be appreciated by fellow residents of the era as entertaining commentaries. But juxtaposed as they sequentially in the pages of the book, the material comes across as being repetitive and contradictory - some as rehashed from others. It is easy to accept that two luminaries might have distinct interpretations of a key event; to a critical thinker it's even valuable to have those contradictions. However, what is unforgivable is the lack of authentication of facts that are easily verifiable.

For example, in the Tito Rodríguez article, the report of Tito's final day is dated as February 28, 1972 not 1973. That might seem like a small typographical error that succeeded in slipping past Mr.Salazar, and his then magazine editor, but it also slipped past the book publisher too... two pages later, the cremation of Tito's remains regains the correct timeline. In a separate instance, the founding of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) the performing rights organisation is incorrectly reported as formed in 1940 (actually 1939).

The lack of rigour in proofing and in verification, even with the simplest of facts, put me in the frame of mind of "if he got these minor things wrong, how can I trust him on the important issues - like the faithful transcription and interpretation of his interview material?"

'Mambo Kingdom' has more than its fair share of errors, plus snippets of information that have eluded verification so far. These have cast a long shadow of doubt over the factual integrity of his writing. It is a flawed work, and vitally interesting though it may be, must be treated simply as entertainingly anecdotal and thus relegated to the status to that of a secondary resource.

With such a topic of immense richness and historical significance, 'Mambo Kingdom' is simultaneously essential reading and a bitterly disappointing pill to swallow.

Loo Yen Yeo