Arts Desk

“Metro Mambo” Explores the Fashion That Went With the Rhythms

WPFW DJ Jim Byers’ latest “Metro Mambo” event will, of course, appeal to anyone who likes to move to the bouncy, '50s-rooted horns-and-percussion-led genre. In the latter portion of the program, which is sponsored by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and takes place at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Richmond, Va.'s Bio Ritmo should offer a wide spectrum of rug-cutting Afro-Cuban sounds. But Byers and his special guest, Professor Leopoldo Tablante, a Venezuelan who teaches at Loyola University in New Orleans, aim to do more. They seek to depict mambo’s place in culture, style, and fashion.

Via email, Byers notes that he and Tablante’s presentations and discussions won’t be  “limited to clothing styles, but rather the overall aesthetic of mambo as it represented a portal to Latinos of the 1950s and 1960s, a portal to modern, 'high-style living'—as defined by the North American standard of that day.” Tablante explains  that the “main idea is to share  some ideas, stemming from music and images, allowing to recall how the mambo craze allowed Latinos in 1950s New York to connect with the values of American pop culture. For me personally, mambo symbolized an important era underlining a Latino’s interpretation of modernity.”

Byers observes that the aspirations of first-generation Cubans or Puerto Ricans coming to New York or L.A. "was reflected not only in the dress and the music, but also in the record covers, the posters, and the décor of the more prominent nightspots. " He point out that the Palladium Ballroom in New York, then the home of mambo, advertised that it offered an evening of "affordable glamour." The Palladium—neither a dive nor a venue for elitists—showed off the futuristic look of a well-known designer who modified the room with "soaring drapes billowing from 'sputnik' lamps, all for something like $1.25 entry fee.” “Nevertheless,” Byers writes, “working-class people dressed to the nines to go there. It gave them one night of the week to look, feel, and dance like a star.

Tablante observes that “both artists and crowd during the mambo years were pretty formal. That means that they would use clothing evoking a certain spirit of conservative sophistication, considered ideal in the white American society." Thus, comfortable or not on the Palladium dance floor, many of the women wore elegant silk dresses and high-heeled shoes, while the men looked cool in suits and ties. “In those years dudes wanted to look like Cary Grant and chicks like Doris Day,” Tablante adds.

The “Metro Mambo” event, which is sponsored by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, takes place Saturday, May 19 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Free.

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