The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

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Oscar Hijuelos has a most wonderful gift for words. When you enter the story of the Castillo brothers, you are virtually there… back in 1950s… traveling with them from Cuba to New York City. You are sure to enjoy entering their world of live entertainment at the height of the Latino big-band era.

Cesar and Nestor Castillo came to the United States with the hopes of achieving the American dream and their musical talent took them a long way towards that goal. Their claim-to-fame was being discovered by Desi Arnez while performing one night at New York’s famed Mambo Nine Club. Upon learning the brothers came from the same small village in Cuba as Desi, he invites them to appear on the I Love Lucy show. And though it was one sole appearance that lasted no more than 5 minutes, it turned out to be a very big break for the Castillos. TV in that era consisted of only 3 basic channels and I Love Lucy was one of the most popular shows on TV. The Castillo brothers became overnight heroes… in their homeland in their village where they grew up, and in the Bronx.

But the life of a professional musician is not an easy life. Working daytime jobs, performing several nights a week, and jamming every free moment in-between left little time for much else. They lived for their music. They wrote their own songs, “ballads, boleros, and an infinite variety of fast dance numbers. Songs about flirtation, magic, blushing brides, cheating husbands, cuckolds, and the cuckolded, flirtatious beauties, humiliation. Happy, sad, fast and slow.”

One of the most creative descriptions in The Mambo Kings is a full page narrative of the sound of the drums… a small sample, “plates-and-coffee-cups-shattering-in-a-pile drums, wild-native-banging-a-row-of-human-skulls-bones-flying-through-the-air drums, Chinese-chimes drums, and men-hitting-men drums, and then rapping-coffin drums, all drums, bata, congo, bongo, quinto, tumbadora drums, booming like storm clouds, beautiful-women-shaking-their-life-giving-hips drums, a-million-bells-falling-out-of-the-sky drums” and on, and on, and on.

Evoking all the reader’s senses, the author provides vivid descriptions… not just of musical sound, but of the taste and aromas of food- pig roast and pork chops, rice and beans, chicken and plantain fritters. And of clothing for the men: black tuxedos, pin-striped suits, cuffed trousers, white silk pantaloons and frilly-sleeved shirts, zoot suits, white gloves and hats, and Cuban-heeled shoes. For the women… “skull-hugging turbans, banded berets, feathered pillbox caps, creamy white pearl necklaces hanging down into low-riding necklines, breasts plumped up and sweet underneath: sequined dresses with lit skirts and pleated midriffs, Frilly slips, step-ins, girdles and garters, brassieres, lacy-fringed and transparent at the nipples” and the vivid portrayals continue almost endlessly.

With depictions of passion of physical pleasure in every imaginable form, this book might have been classified as soft porn… but winning the Pulitzer Prize moved it right into the category of ‘classic literature’. To report that the sex scenes are merely abundant would be quite an understatement.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love confirms the age-old cliche about “hot Latin lovers.” So if you find graphically sensual sex scenes offensive, you may just want to skip this book. But be assured, if you do choose to read it, you will be hard pressed to find a more authentic, real-to-life, passionate, nostalgic, entertaining novel about the 1950s American/Latino cultural experience.

Rated 5 Stars.

All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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