They called themselves the Mamboniks, and while those who remain still dance at South Florida halls like the Goldcoast Ballroom in Coconut Creek, their story has seldom been told before now. Director Lex Gillespie will premiere his documentary film about the Jewish, mambo-obsessed scene and some of its most intriguing characters at Coral Gables Art Cinema during the Miami Film Festival on Sunday, March 3.
One of the dancers Gillespie encountered at the Goldcoast is Marvin Jaye, better known within the mambo scene as "Marvano." Film viewers meet him minutes into the documentary at Miami International Airport, where he boards a small plane to return to Cuba for the first time since Castro assumed power in the late 1950's. Once there, he makes himself at home, dancing to the music of mambo ensembles in Havana, reminiscing on the Malecon, and enjoying a serenade from a local taxi driver.
Jaye was a frequent visitor to Cuba before Castro's era began. In those days, he taught mambo dancing on Miami Beach, and he'd often visit the island in search of records to play during his classes. Before that, when the music wasn't as accessible, he and his friends got creative, picking up Cuban radio stations using unconventional methods. "We got a long, long wire — I don't know where the hell we got the wire — and we attached it to the radio," he remembers. "We ran it alongside the top of the outside of the studio and down to the end. And that reception came through fantastic."
Upon his return with film crews in 2011, Jaye led Gillespie and his team to many of his old haunts, though some no longer existed. "We saw Cuba through his eyes," says the filmmaker. "And he did a lot of dancing there. Everywhere, it seems, we'd walk in and there was music. It's almost a cliche that there's music everywhere [in Cuba], but we certainly found it."
But Gillespie believes the story of these Jewish youths who became Mamoboniks is significant because it draws a straight through line to today's mainstream American fascination with Latin music. "Back when the mambo was starting, this music was really new... You take for granted that things were this way, but Latin music was just really kind of in its infancy [in the U.S.], and this whole scene pushed it along and helped it to get its foothold."
The Mamboniks at the Miami Film Festival. 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, March 3 at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-472-2249; miamifilmfestival.com.
7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6 at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St. #100, Miami; 305-536-5000; miamifilmfestival.com.