The mambo has been described as, “a type of syncopated montuno [rural music] that possesses the rhythmic charm, informality and eloquence of the Cuban people.” It also describes Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love — complex, flamboyant and balanced.
The first half of the book describes the life of two musical brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo. Immigrants from Cuba, they settle in New York in the 1950s, at the height of the Mambo-craze. Hijuelo’s vivid images reflect how music, the mainstream of their culture, help the two brothers navigate their new environment. They find comfort in the communal joy of making music with their friends, demonstrating the transformative power of music. They eventually capture the attention of Desi Arnez, and make a brief appearance on the I Love Lucy Show, giving them iconic status within their community.
The two brothers couldn’t be more different. Cesar is full of ego and machismo, and spends his time smoking, drinking, womanizing. He lives for the moment, with careless regard for the future. Too busy loving himself to find love with another. Nestor on the other hand, is trapped in the past, pining for a love he left in Cuba. Too melancholic to appreciate the life he has in America, despite his fame, loving wife and two children.
The second half of the book takes place after the untimely death of Nestor. It is the story of an aging Cesar, trying to come to grips with his life after his looks, talent and health have all faded away. Stuck with the consequences of his living-in-the-moment lifestyle, a somewhat pathetic Cesar finds himself sad, alone and depressed.
While I found the book a bit long-winded, and I quickly tired of Cesar’s womanizing escapades (I really don’t need to read about every one of Cesar’s sexual exploits), I did enjoy the book. It is the contrast between these two characters that makes this book so compelling. Cesar and Nestor highlight the fine line we must balance as individuals — recognizing our past, appreciating our present, and anticipating our future. Living too closely in any one realm can sacrifice the others.
I encourage you to pick up this book. I also encourage you to read it while listening to some of the Mambo greats, including Tito Puente, Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat or Benny More, all referenced in the book. It will give you a sense as to the lively spirit of the culture, place and the time.
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