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Back in November, WPFW Sunday night DJ Jim Byers kicked off the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s “Metro Mambo: Latin Music in DC” series of concerts and lectures with a special program titled “Mambo in Mexico.” I contacted him then about the program and posted an interview here.
Byers will be back at the same museum on Saturday at 2 p.m. with a new panel discussion and dance concert titled “Casbah to Zanzibar,” the first of a number of programs on Latin music in D.C. in 2010. Through conversations with figures from the city’s Latin dance scene over the past 60 years, Byers plans to retrace the history of diversity in Latin dance nightlife in D.C., from the Casbah—D.C.’s home of the mambo on U Street NW—to WUST Radio Music Hall to the Zanzibar on the Waterfront. After the discussion, audience members can danceto the salsa music of Bio Ritmo. I sent Byers some questions; read what he had to say after the jump:
Washington City Paper: Have you done additional research or is this the product of research you’ve been doing on and off for years?
Jim Byers: Much of the research for “Metro Mambo” is an extension of my on-going interest in this history as a record collector, radio host, concert presenter and dance instructor starting in the late 1980’s. When the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum approached me to do a Latin-jazz lecture/concert series, my first thought was to celebrate our own. Given that the leading lights of the DC scene have been traditionally of many backgrounds and colors – from black, to brown, to white, I found it especially intriguing that it would take place at this venue, given their mission to explore the urban community – how it works, evolves, survives, creates and innovates. Moreover, as a McLean, Virginia native who has loved living in Southeast DC for 14 years, I’m up for any opportunity to bring new audiences across the Anacostia River (something I knew this series had the potential to do), and build bridges.
WCP: Is there a panel? Who will be on the panel?
Jim Byers: Each of the upcoming events will feature a panel for the first hour, followed by an hour of dancing with one of our area’s top Latin music ensembles. Titled “Casbah to Zanzibar” (referencing the names of two storied D.C. Latin dance venues), Saturday’s installment of the “Metro Mambo” series focuses on the diversity of D.C.’s Latin dance scene. The panelists for this specific event range from Casbah-era dance legends such as James “Flip” Brown to promoter/instructor Eileen Torres, who turned Zanzibar on the Waterfront into an east-coast mecca for salsa during most of the 2000s.
WCP: Did you change bands to Bio Ritmo?
Jim Byers: Well yes, but for the very best of reasons! As fate would have it, the originally scheduled band of Verny Varela got an offer to appear at a major salsa festival in South America this week. It was truly an offer that he couldn’t possibly refuse—-and I wouldn’t have asked him to (how could we do a program celebrating D.C. musicians, and then deny Verny the opportunity to share the bill with Willie Colon and La Sonora Poncena)! Being a professional, Verny let me know in plenty of time to find another band, while he represents the talent of D.C.’s musicians this week in Peru (you GO, Verny)! I’m really happy that another of our region’s fine bands, Bio Ritmo was willing and able to participate in Saturday’s “Metro Mambo” event!
WCP: Where is the video from?
Jim Byers: They are clips that have been donated and shared with me over the years by long-time members of the D.C. Latin dance community (more on this in the answer below). While the sound is not original to the video, they are a wonderful window into a dance scene that (while overshadowed by New York) has thrived in Washington for decades.
WCP: Are the super rare recordings from your collection?
Jim Byers: Over the years, D.C. musicians have been very generous in sharing their archives and memories with me, because they knew I respected the history and most of all that I enjoy sharing it both on the air and in presentations. For example, dancer and bandleader Roland Kave gave me incredibly-rare, mint-condition 45 r.p.m. recordings (on the in-house ‘Casbah’ nightclub label) by his band, The Fabulous Los Diablos. Further, he allowed me to scan original photographs of Mambo dances at the Casbah and the WUST Radio Hall (now the 9:30 Club). A few years ago, percussionist and bandleader Paul Hawkins entrusted me with the bulk of his 40 year record collection which includes a number of DC rarities which I’ve shared on the air. Ed Rowell (the brother of noted DC musician Buddy Rowell) allowed me to transcribe a lengthy 1954 reel-to-reel recording of one of their fabled Mambo sessions in the ballroom of the storied Cairo Apartment-Hotel on Q St, NW. Portions of these and other memorabilia will be shared as part of this, and/or future “Metro Mambo” presentations.
WCP: Has anyone discussed this history of D.C. Latin music clubs in print in English before?
Jim Byers: The short answer is absolutely “yes”! In more ways than the obvious, I’m treading humbly in the esteemed footsteps of broadcaster and historian Hector Corporan (the originator of the Latin Flavor radio program). About 15 years ago, Hector produced several wonderful programs honoring DC Latin musicians when he was on-staff at the Smithsonian Associates Program. However, 15-plus years ago, many of the musicians and dancers of this era were still in touch, and some still performing. In putting together the “Metro Mambo” Series, it became clear that with the advent of retirement, advancing age, a couple of residence changes, many of them had fallen out of contact. They got excited because “Metro Mambo” was giving them an impetus to reunite and recollect. There’s even discussion of organizing a regular ‘meeting’. So, the deeper answer is that – while this is most certainly not ‘the first program of its kind’ – in our fast moving society, history needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced to remind us that it is always – always – relevant. The message of “Metro Mambo” on a ‘micro’ level is the importance of DC dancers, musicians, artists – and citizens in general – to know that we’re all part of a continuum. That message is reinforced on an international level via the current exhibit at the Museum – “The African Presence in Mexico” – presence that comes as a surprise to many (as does a DC Latin music and dance scene that goes back more than half a century).
WCP: Are you going to discuss segregation; economic class issues; politics; and DC demographics in addition to the hep music and dancing?
Jim Byers: Yes, several of those topics will be referenced in the discussion. But – in my opinion – the great triumph of the history of Latin-jazz and mambo (in DC and elsewhere) is it’s great success in transcending these issues – maybe not wholly or completely (given the racial climate of various points in time) but with a striking degree efficacy as compared to some other popular music forms. While some genre’s were rife with ‘cover artists’ and other methods of maximizing commercial viability, early in the game, mambo and latin-jazz settled into a long-lived ‘slow burn’ that respected authenticity above all. If you could play (or dance) with your authentic spirit, all the rest the ‘stuff’ – age, race, orientation, religion – just didn’t seem to matter too terribly much to those in the scene. The same principle holds true today, lending the Latin dance scene a startling diversity that never ceases to amaze newcomers.
“Metro Mambo”/“Casbah to Zanzibar” with Jim Byers and Bio Ritmo lecture and concert/dance, Saturday February 27 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum,1901 Fort Place, SE. FREE but due to the venue’s limited space, advance RSVP’s are required by calling 202-633-4866.