Playing Until He Can’t Play Anymore: The Last Mambo King Orlando Marin

I didn’t think this would happen but when I saw him right in front of me, I was a bit shell-shocked. The Last Mambo King, Orlando Marin, was standing in front of me at Ginny's Supper Club in a traditional white guayabera and I was honestly star struck. Here was one of the founding fathers of the music we know today as Salsa, and I being born in Colombia, learned how to dance to Salsa as soon as I learned how to walk. So it was only natural to be in awe of one of the greats.

As I sat down and spoke with Mr. Marin, I was astounded at how personable he was; it was like I was sitting down for a chat with my grandfather. And just like a grandfather he began to recount his amazing stories of how music was back in the day, when Mambo first came about, how he started his first orchestras and how he was drafted to the Army during the Korean War. I sat and listened intently, watching his hands move around while he spoke with enthusiasm, and even gasped when I heard the big names of band leaders and artists he played with that are idolized in my culture. Names like Tito Puentes, Tito Rodriguez, and Eddie Palmieri are as familiar to him as “Mom” and “Dad” are to us.

So as the story goes, Orlando Marin grew up singing and dancing. At 2 and 3 years of age he learned how to sing and dance, starting at house parties and then theaters, and even at that young age he had the ability to remember lyrics and rhythms. “My mom was always the biggest encouragement,” he says, “and by the age of 9, I was singing in a 15-piece orchestra and tap dancing.” But she died when Orlando was 10 years old, so he lost interest in music and took to the street to play stickball. “I was so good at stickball that I’m in the stickball hall of fame!”

But at the age of 15, Mambo came out big in New York and every Boricua in the Bronx and in El Barrio was dancing to it. “So I fell in love with it and I told my friends that that music excited me…it stirred something in me. So I bought a cowbell and timbales (single-headed Cuban drums) and just started playing. And the logic of a child, I was 16, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t know how to play and nobody is going to hire me, so I’m going to make a band with the kids in my neighborhood.’ So I started as a band leader and I didn’t even know how to play… I just said I was going to do it, y lo hice (and I did it)!”

But it was no ordinary band, he found Eddie Palmieri (14 years old at the time, who is set to play next week on NYC’s SummerStage), Joe Quijano (15 years old who is also huge in the mambo and pachanga world) and other musicians in the Bronx that all grew up to be professional musicians. “I was very lucky that God gave me the gift of music and by the age of 18, I was already recording my music and playing in big dancehalls like the famous Palladium Ballroom and played in all the boroughs. We were the first band to come out of the Bronx, it was only us, Puentes, Machito, and Rodriguez that were playing Mambo.”

Mr. Marin then got drafted to the Army in 1958, and while he was doing his service, the other greats got famous. But Orlando also got a stab at fame when he won a talent show for the Army where he was then sent on tour all over Korea and then to the US, where he played on only the biggest show on TV at the time, The Ed Sullivan Show. When he returned from Korea, he recorded the great hits that we know today, El Timbalero and Se Te Quemo La Casa, that became famous all around the world and to this day is the last Mambo King (on the timbales) to still perform.

After having a great career, some might ask ‘Why not hang up the drumsticks and retire?’ As the Last Mambo King Orlando Marin eloquently puts it, “Tito Puentes played until he passed away, Tito Rodriguez played until he passed away, Machito played until he passed away, so I plan to do the same. I love music and when I play I feel like I did when I was 15 years old, I can’t explain it. I got into music to represent the Hispanic community and I want to bring joy to people. I’m celebrating this year 61 years as a band leader and I want to continue for as long as I can, y voy hasta el fin (and I’ll go until the end)!”

Photos: Cyndi Amaya

Spanish Harlem's La Marqueta: A Sweet Surprise from Breezy Hill Orchard

Every town and neighborhood has its one local market that is categorized by its charm. It's probably small enough so you can get to know your vendors, but also large enough to hold everything you need. For Spanish Harlem, that market is La Marqueta.

La Marqueta is one of the oldest landmarks in East Harlem and to this day, continues to be a trademark spot for Harlemites and New Yorkers alike. The 80,000-square-foot market is separated by six parcels divided by intersecting streets and stretches from 111th street to 116th underneath the metro rail north line on Park Avenue. It was first established in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to control the numerous pushcarts and vendors that piled the streets of East Harlem with their various produce, fruits, vegetables and homemade breads. Since then, La Marqueta has had its ups and downs--including a fire that destroyed one of the markets in 1977--but regardless, the market has remained a place for all people to shop and interact with vendors, buying the best local produce and locally grown vegetables East Harlem has to offer.

More recently, the city council of New York instituted within La Marqueta, a 3,000-square-foot kitchen space and a 1,600-square-foot bakery space specifically designated as an incubator program for Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit program that trains low-income immigrant women in culinary skills. The small and shared workplace is geared towards making that transition from home-kitchen to local business much smoother than most while providing technical assistance as needed. The windows enclosing Hot Bread Kitchen are glass, which provide a small glimpse into the kitchen for those passing through La Marqueta an additional sweet treat to all the different kinds of food and drink offered by vendors.

Speaking of vendors, there is a vast array of merchants selling their goods, including La Bodega Gourmet, Urban Garden Center, Velez Groceries, Viva Produce, W.E. Meats and Fish Distribution and Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill. On a recent trip to La Marqueta last week, I discovered one of the sweetest treats I've ever had : a homemade empanada stuffed with cookie dough and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Far from its savory counterparts of chicken, beef, pork and vegetables, this "dessert" empanada had my mouth watering from the beginning. Breezy Hill has been in business for the past 25 years, owned and operated by Elizabeth Ryan in the historic Hudson Valley of New York. Growing more than 100 varieties of apples and other fruit, their specialty certainly lies in such, with fresh apple cider being one of their most popular items. However, with the empanadas fresh out of the oven, I simply couldn't resist.

Flaky crust, hot chocolate sauce dripping down my lips and a warm, doughy center of cookie dough, this empanada was out of this world, definitely in the running for "best dessert category," if there ever was one. Surprisingly, the empanada was not overpoweringly sweet, which must be due to the flavor of the empanada dough, rather than the filling. Tasting like a traditional savory empanada, the dough was delicate in flavor, complementing the richness of the cookie dough filling. Sprinkled with sea salt, the chocolate flavor was intensely deep and heavenly. Each bite turned out to be a surprise, your taste buds first hit with salt then an explosion of the cookie dough. Devoured in a number of minutes, the empanada was reminiscent of my childhood, seeing as I devilishly licked my fingertips to sop up the last traces of chocolate. I left La Marqueta happily satisfied, rejoicing in the fact I only have to walk a few blocks to snag another warm batch of cookie-dough filled empanadas.

Check back next week, when we highlight another vendor of La Marqueta.

Photos: Allana Mortell

Five Dollar Food Challenge: "Cubano" at La Isla

By: Michael Engle

In the previous installment of the Five Dollar Food Challenge, I visited Spanish Harlem and, on a whim, found El Aguila to be  my new go-to for authentic Mexican cuisine. This time, I again returned to Spanish Harlem, but I intentionally ventured farther east for the sake of exploring a different section of the area. For my most recent Five Dollar Food Challenge, I found myself at La Isla, a local outlet for casual Caribbean cuisine.

Dining with a $5 limit is totally possible at La Isla! One $5 option is the "lunch special" from 11a-4p (except on Sundays), which consists of a choice among roasted half-chicken, fried chicken, fried pork chop, or ribs, along with rice and beans. Alternatively, one might choose to spend $5 on various frituras, which sit on a heated display shelf by the front window, inviting passersby to order one for the road. La Isla offers, among other warm snacks, meat-filled cassavas, meat-filled plantains, and meat patties.

Having never had the chance to sample a proper Cubano sandwich, I parked myself at the bar and ordered one for $5. Most Cubano sandwiches, including this one, are comprised of roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, served on Cuban bread and finished in a panini-like press. (Curiously, mine seemed to lack pickles, even though the menu suggests that they should have been included.) The sandwich came out steamy, flavorful, and filling. After one bite, a friendly worker suggested that I might take my experience further. He offered a ladle's worth of broth from a meat stew, along with a tablespoon of minced garlic in oil. I instinctively combined the two extras, and gave my Cubano a French Dip twist. My sandwich also came with a portion of plantain chips to top it all off.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my sandwich, I desperately wanted to sample the oxtail stew, which is La Isla's Friday-only special. (Other du jour offerings include Saturday's goat stew, Monday and Wednesday's mondongo guisado--tripe soup, and Thursday's shrimp soup.) I also would have considered trying the mofongo, which is a spiced plantain puree that can be topped with an additional protein. Unless you order the lunch special or a sandwich (as I did), you should reasonably expect to spend $8 or $9 for a main dish; based on what I saw other customers order, you may wish to take some home for a late-night snack. That being said, La Isla offers tasty, fast, and authentic island food, as well as an incentive to visit every day of the week in order to sample everything they have to offer.

La Isla, 1883 3rd Ave (between 104th St & 105th St), NYC 10029, tel. (212) 534-0002.

Inside 'El Barrio': Mi Mexico Lindo Bakery

By: Cyndi Amaya

Unless you're a Harlem resident, little is known about Spanish Harlem to most New Yorkers. Known as 'El Barrio,' East Harlem is one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in New York City. Once known as Italian Harlem because of the once-predominant Italian community, it now houses a large Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican population.

With such a vast Hispanic community, it's no doubt that most of the businesses and hot spots are Latin-based, with El Museo del Barrio (the largest Hispanic and Caribbean museum in NYC) being one of the main institutions of the neighborhoods. As Hispanic myself, I've always been drawn to El Barrio, since I can never get enough of my culture (same reason being why I moved to Queens not so long ago).

But with so many Hispanic businesses and restaurants, where is one to go for an authentic taste of Spanish Harlem? In this series, we'll give you insight to a few Spanish Harlem favorites that seem to make everyone's lists of must-tries. We've spread out our Latin choices and we'll feature all ethnicities: Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican. Our first focus today is a little Mexican bakery that has quickly become one of my favorites- Mi Mexico Lindo Bakery.

I've always been mesmerized by Mexican sweet bread. I grew up seeing it everywhere: novelas, storefront windows, and as breakfast items in no matter what Latin country I found myself in. But for fear of over-sweetness, it wasn't until recently that I finally tried it. I first experienced it in the other Mexican community in Jackson Heights, Queens and was pleasantly surprised by its subtle sweetness and quickly fell in love. With that same enthusiasm, I entered Mi Mexico Lindo Bakery a few weeks back in search for that enticing bread. Little did I know I would walk into the Mecca of Mexican baked goods to date!

The bakery is small and humble, a hole-in-the-wall to most passer-bys; but is filled with what they know best- Mexican Bread! Racks filled with different types of Pan Dulces, or sweet oval bread loaves topped with crunchy sugar; muffins; danishes; guava-filled pastries; and Orejas de Elefante, or Elephant Ears- all made fresh everyday! There is even a refrigerator full of gelatin desserts of every flavor, Flan, Tres Leches, and even milk gelatin desserts. Heaven for a sweet-tooth fanatic!

Beside the register and window in the back where you can order other salty Mexican favorites like Tortas or Tacos, there's not much else in the shop. You enter, pick up a bag or tray and tongs, pick your choices, and bring them up to the register. Not sure what to try? The friendly staff is always happy to describe each bread or pastry to help. While their charm will win you over, the flavor of their pastries is enough. It worked for me, since I've been back twice since then!

So for a taste of fresh authentic Mexican bread, check out Mi Mexico Lindo Bakery, located at 2267 2nd Avenue, between 116th Street & 117th Street in Spanish Harlem. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more Inside 'El Barrio'.

Photos: Cyndi Amaya

For more tips on where to go in Harlem, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

The Hispanic Society of America

By: Dylan Rodgers

Founded on May 18, 1904, by Archer Milton Huntington, the Hispanic Society of America features more than 800 paintings and 6,000 watercolors and drawings from Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American artists.  The most famous exhibition of the Hispanic Society, that of Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, was recently reopened after a two-year renovation.  Sorolla's Vision of Spain along with other late nineteenth and early twentieth century Spanish and Latin American paintings are in the North Building Galleries.

Another notable painting is that of "The Black Duchess," by Francisco Jose de Goya which is on display at the Hispanic Society.  It is a painting done of the Duchess of Alba in a period of mourning in the late 18th century.

For those interested in less artistic mediums of cultural expression, the Hispanic Society's has an extensive and unparalleled library of 250,000 books and periodicals, some dating before 1701.  Researchers are welcome to peruse through these along with 200,000 manuscripts ranging from the twelfth century to the present.  The Hispanic Society is nothing short of a goldmine for anyone interested in Hispanic history and modern Hispanic culture.

The best part of about the Hispanic Society of America is that they offer their remarkable collection entirely free of charge.  They also provide free 45 minute tours of the collection.

Located at 613 West 155th Street in Harlem, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm and Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm.

For more information on the Hispanic Society of America, click here.

Photo: Mark B. Schlemmer