23 nov 2011

Fallece Ernie Ensley, legendario bailarín de la Era del Palladium

Tal vez su nombre no sea familiar para las generaciones más jóvenes. Solo los mayores lo recordarán como uno de los bailarines que animaron esas legendarias noches latinas en el Palladium de New York. Y otros reconocerán en él a uno de los coleccionistas más acuciosos de audios y videos afro-cubanos en los Estados Unidos.

Hace varios meses que ya se encontraba mal de salud y empezando la semana nos llegó la noticia de su muerte. Su nombre era Ernie Ensley. A continuación, una extensa nota (en inglés) del N.Y. Times (del año 2004) referida a Mr. Ensley.

A Mambo King in His Twilight
"You wouldn't believe the music I have here," said Ernie Ensley.
Published: November 28, 2004

ERNIE ENSLEY'S spare one-bedroom in a Bronx housing complex for the elderly could hardly be further removed from the Palladium, the glamorous nightclub that presided at Broadway and 53rd Street from the 1940's into the 60's.

But sit on the raggedy futon, close your eyes and open your ears, and everything changes. Mr. Ensley, who turned 70 last week, has amassed in his East Tremont apartment an extraordinary collection of the mambo music that was performed at the Palladium and just about every other important Latin club in New York during mambo's heyday and in the decades since.

The items, which include thousands of audiotapes plus videotapes and other material, fill two closets and line a whole side of the living room, while Latin music posters cover most of the walls. In this shrine to mambo, in fact, about the only hint that Mr. Ensley cares about anything else are the photos of his 26-year-old daughter, Onkeea.

For years, Mr. Ensley has received many inquiries about his collection and, for the last few months, he has been negotiating their transfer to the Raices Latin Music Collection, a 16,000-item archive of Afro-Caribbean music based in the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem. In April, Raices received a grant from the Ford Foundation to obtain and preserve the tapes.

Last week, a longstanding verbal agreement between Mr. Ensley and Raices collapsed over Mr. Ensley's proposed consulting fee. But the negotiations will continue, and the outcome of those talks will be of compelling interest not only to aficionados of mambo and of Latin music in general, but also to music historians. While other collections of live mambo recordings may exist in private hands, musicians and officials at Raices say the Ensley tapes may be unique in their scope.

"As far as live recordings of so many musicians, bands, special events - it doesn't exist," said Ramon Rodriguez, the Conservatory director. "He has a vast knowledge of where, who and what happened with this music, because he was there."

Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of African and Afro-American studies at Yale who hung out at the Palladium in the 50's and has often invited Mr. Ensley to speak to his classes, agrees with this assessment of the collection. Professor Thompson has heard only samples of the collection, but, he said, "The cultural DNA on what he gave me was so strong, it blew me away."

Even the collector himself is impressed with his holdings. "You wouldn't believe the music I have here," said Mr. Ensley, still graced with his dancer's slender build, as he gazed about his apartment one day recently.

Mr. Ensley did not just document the mambo craze: he was a prominent part of it, a fixture at the Palladium as both a dancer and a recorder of live shows, as well as a D.J. at other spots. Even today, Mr. Ensley is a keeper of the flame, still spinning old mambos and pachangas at Orchard Beach on summer Sundays, and working regularly as a D.J. at clubs catering to the older set.

But the modern scene is just a faint echo of the one that flourished in the 50's and 60's, when dance floors shook with the rhythms of that singular musical style, especially in this city. "Mambo was a tale of many cities," Professor Thompson said, "but the richest vein was New York."

Dancing That Made the Ceiling Shake

In the late 1940's, Dámaso Pérez Prado, a Cuban who had moved to Mexico, experimented with combining Afro-Cuban rhythms with the saxophone and trumpet riffs that were a hallmark of big bands. These innovations, on top of others in Cuba in the previous decades, created what came to be known as mambo, a term derived from an African word meaning "conversation with the gods." Mr. Pérez Prado championed a version of the new sound that was popular on the West Coast, but New York was also a mambo capital.

Mambo was an early Latin crossover success, but unlike so many other crossovers, it did not immediately get watered down for consumption by its new broader audience, at least not in New York. But that did not dim its allure. A 1954 article in Life magazine offered its vast readership - the very definition of mainstream America - step-by-step mambo instructions, along with a photo of Oregon schoolchildren learning mambo in gym class.

Some mambo lyrics made this broad interest explicit, such as these lines from "Mambo a la Savoy," by Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra:

Here's the latest dance creation, it's not a fad, the real sensation

Latins can do it, you can do it too.

It was started by a Latin, who brought

the dance to old Manhattan

And he called it Mambo a la Savoy.

To Professor Thompson of Yale, who is working on a book called "Staccato Incandescence: The Story of Mambo," the music served an important role in midcentury America: it kept the big bands alive and filled the gap between what he described as the "apparent demise of jazz dancing" and the birth of rock and roll. As Professor Thompson put it, "It kept the world dancing between 1939 and 1959."

The music was also innovative. Professor Thompson has written that mambo was "nothing less than the Africanization of one of the deepest conceits of the West, symphonic music, and the splitting asunder of the Western couple dance." Never before had couples who started in classic ballroom positions been permitted to separate and dance unfettered on their own.

Mambo, which came of age on the eve of the civil rights era, also supplied an oasis where color and ethnicity mattered little. At the Palladium, for example, even though Latinos, blacks, Jews and Italians sometimes went dancing on different nights, mambo still created one of the most diversified scenes of the day, especially on Wednesday, which was show night, with professional contests and dance exhibitions. In an often repeated story, the owner of the Palladium was asked if he was bothered by the mixing at his club. His answer: The only color he cared about was green.

The Palladium was indisputably the center of mambo in New York, in part because it was the home base for the orchestras of Tito Puente, the percussion master, and the singer Tito Rodriguez. Subway riders headed for the nightclub heard the strains of the music even before they pushed through the turnstiles and, in the drugstore beneath the Palladium, the dancing made the ceiling shake.

Decked-out dancers used to check out their look on the mirrored staircase as they went upstairs to the dance floor. Celebrities like Marlon Brando, separated from the dancers by a wrought-iron fence, were common sights. Mambo lessons began at 8 p.m. for the rhythmless masses, and as the evening proceeded the dancers followed the music and the music followed the dancers, as they invented new steps and tried to outshine one another.

Moving Like a Marionette

Ernie Ensley's first trip to the Palladium came when he was a teenager, after he had learned the basics of mambo from a friend and practiced a routine. It was 1952, Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra was playing, and it was show night. In a few years, Mr. Ensley was hired to be a dancer in the Palladium dance contests, performing with his longtime partner, Dotty Adams. When the dancers separated from their partners to strut their stuff, Mr. Ensley eagerly did so, moving like a marionette, breaking, splitting and swinging.

"Your dance steps had to be so good," he said, "nobody else could do it." Which is not to say that nobody tried; in fact, everybody tried to imitate the moves of showcased dancers like Mr. Ensley. But at least in his eyes, they failed. "I did it smoothly," he explained. "Other people did them roughly."

Some of his contemporaries disagree. "He had a creative style that not everyone liked," said Don Nellin, a writer in Los Angeles who frequented the Palladium in the 50's. "Some of his movements were dramatic and jerky. It was all his own."

But whatever the quality of his dancing, Mr. Ensley was in demand. In the summer, he used to hop into the Cadillac owned by his manager, who was known as Killer Joe Piro, and drive up to the resorts in the Catskills where many Jewish families took vacations. Mambo was especially popular among Jews, who counted among their ranks such mambo-linked personalities as Al (Alfredito) Levy, a bandleader, and Dick (Ricardo) Sugar, a D.J. on radio station WEVD.

Mr. Ensley had his chances to mingle with the famous. One day in the 50's, a man approached him and passed along a dance request from Julie Newmar, the actress who would later be known as Catwoman. As the couple danced, a crowd so large gathered that the Palladium's security officers made them stop.

"God, what a beautiful woman!" Mr. Ensley recalled. "I regret I never followed up with her." He next saw Ms. Newmar decades later, when he bumped into her walking her dog on Amsterdam Avenue. "We talked about that night," he said. "And she was still beautiful."

Taping, Sometimes in Secret

The celebrities he became closest to, however, were the musicians.

One night in 1960, a woman who was a great dancer asked Mr. Ensley for help operating her new reel-to-reel tape recorder, and he fell in love - with the machine. "When I played the tape back," he recalled, "it was very exciting."

Soon he had his own equipment. "I started to get a collection," he said, "and then it started to be a habit." He went from one microphone to two, to four, and then to one for every member of the band. He stood by the controls, adjusting levels until everything was exactly the way he wanted it.

Mr. Ensley was not the only person recording these events. Anibal Vasquez, a dancer who became famous with the Mambo Aces, had made tapes that Mr. Ensley occasionally copied, and some albums, like "Tito Rodriguez: Live at the Palladium," were recorded at the clubs. Mr. Ensley was completely taken with the process.

"When I was recording, when I was mixing the tapes, it was fascinating that if I wanted more lead singer, I could just turn the thing on the mixer," he said. "That gave me a sense of power. I could make a band sound good or sound bad." He soon amended that statement: he could make a good band sound bad, but he could not make a bad band sound good.

Although at first Mr. Ensley mostly taped on the sly, the musicians came to trust him and knew that he would not sell copies of their music. As a result, he often got permission to tape them, even when such taping violated union rules. Even when performers would not let him tape, however, he often did so anyway, arriving before the show with his clunky equipment and pretending he was with the band. By the mid-60's, he was so well known that this strategy could backfire; once Machito caught him when he stuck his head out a balcony window at the Riverside Plaza, and Mr. Ensley had to stop taping.

When he did tape, Mr. Ensley was typically obliging to the musicians. Once, when Tito Puente was performing, a song went wrong and Mr. Puente loudly berated a member of his band. He asked Mr. Ensley not to keep that incident on tape, and Mr. Ensley recorded over it.

Mr. Ensley's tapes did not go straight from the clubs to the closet. He used the tapes to become a well-known D.J., starting at Delira, a club in Greenwich Village. His D.J. gig at Orchard Beach began about 1962, and he still has the converter that he used to hook up his machine to a car battery.

For all the fun he was having, the taping hurt his personal life, most noticeably leading to the breakup of a three-year marriage he had in his 20's. "I'd go tape on a Wednesday night, and I'd make copies of the tapes, and that took a lot of time," he said. "It wasn't a life. At the time, I couldn't see it, but that's what happened."

Taping didn't pay the bills either, and Mr. Ensley earned just $15 a night for dancing once a week at the Palladium and later at the Corso. To make ends meet, he worked full time for 35 years as a shipping manager for a company called Commercial Plastics, at first in Greenwich Village and then in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Not that anyone at the Palladium - which closed its doors in 1966 - knew much about Commercial Plastics or the outside life of its habitués. "Once you hit that place," Mr. Nellin, the writer, said, "it didn't matter who you were or what you did for a living. It was all about the dance."

A Music Fading Into Memory

Mr. Ensley's tapes are a mystery in plain sight. They are unmarked, vast - and fragile. Sometimes, when he puts one in his reel-to-reel machine, it snaps.

The fitful discussions with the Raices Collection will continue, but whoever ultimately acquires the tapes will probably face the daunting task of identifying, digitizing and cataloging them. And Mr. Ensley is probably in the best position to name the bands and the date and location of each performance.

As this task of musical preservation looms into view, the heyday of mambo recedes. Mambo first began to fade from the national scene in the 60's; whereas Mr. Pérez Prado once beat out even Elvis on the charts, Tito Puente was no match for the Beatles, and successive Latin genres like cha-cha, pachanga and bugalu never quite captivated the country.

Mr. Ensley senses this eclipse of mambo, and in a deeply personal way. One recent afternoon, he learned through a phone call to his apartment that a member of the orchestra Sonora Matancera had died. "There's a lot of people leaving us," he said after hanging up. "This is the fourth one in the past month that I remember."

He cringes when he meets a young Latino who has never heard of Machito or Puente, and like many old-timers, he also cringes at modern salsa. Despite a global popularity far exceeding mambo's - Japan and Europe are full of salsa fanatics - many mambo veterans view salsa as a watered-down product, one that focuses less on instrumentation and rhythm and more on the singers.

Nevertheless, "it's a dying cause," Mr. Ensley said of mambo, noting how few clubs and bands remain. "I can't see it getting any better."

But the stars of the era last for a long time - Tito Puente and Celia Cruz performed up until their recent deaths - and an active, if small, community of mambo dancers endures. Although other musical forms have clearly supplanted mambo, mambo lives within them. In salsa and merengue, for instance, the improvised riffs of the brass section and the saxophones are called the "mambo" section. The old music and its world still resonate in fiction; not only in such classics as Oscar Hijuelos's 1989 novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" but also in such new works as Marta Moreno Vega's "When the Spirits Dance Mambo."

"It's very much alive," Professor Thompson said of mambo, "but in strains and tendencies. In a sense nothing has changed, while everything has changed."

He could have been describing Mr. Ensley and his tapes. When he plays the old music in his apartment, he turns up the volume much higher than you would expect from a 70-year-old man. It is as if you are in a sparkling nightclub in his glory days. Close your eyes, and you are.

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