Bringin' the Hannukah light with Milwaukee's Latkes Con Salsa
Hannukah is the Jewish festival of lights. Lighting candles each night and eating fried foods are holiday traditions, and music can be a big part of the celebration too.
In Milwaukee, that music is getting a new spin with a project called Latkes Con Salsa. Named for Jewish potato pancakes with a little spice, the project melds Hannukah favorites with Latin rhythms like bomba, salsa and merengue.
The Latin-Jewish music connection has been strong over the decades. Whether that’s beloved Cuban singer Celia Cruz recording Hava Nagila or Larry Harlow, a renowned Jewish pianist known for salsa recordings on Fania Records.
It’s a connection that’s really struck Milwaukee musician Mitchell Shiner. “One of my favorite styles of music is Latin jazz,” says Shiner. “And that's really a fusion of many different styles all at once. And being more than somewhat interested in my own cultural identity, I wanted to figure out a way to make a fusion of the two things that I really enjoy, which is traditional Jewish tunes, and the amazing rhythms that come from the Caribbean and South America.”
Matzoh Ball Merengue is one of the songs on Shiner’s album Latkes Con Salsa. It’s his reworked version of another song that was popular in 1959 when the Irving Fields Trio released their mix of Latin and Jewish music, Bagels and Bongos.
“You know, a lot of this music was played for big dance halls in the Catskill Mountains of New York where a lot of Jewish people would go and they love dancing to salsa bands,” Shiner explains.
He says these musical traditions share a similar element—the harmonic minor. Mitch plays a sample on his melodica, then adds “and that kind of sound is shared between music of Spanish and Middle Eastern origin and in Jewish music, too. So, I think there's a simpatico there where I think Jewish people would hear those harmonies and go ‘oh, yeah, like something in me, I recognize that.’”
One of the songs is a medley. It combines a 1981 hit from the Puerto Rican supergroup Batacumbele called Se Le Ve, – or “You can see it!” with a Jewish kids song about the top you spin on Hannukah, called I Have a Little Dreidl.
“And it's very catchy,” Shiner says of the traditional kids tune, “but yeah, after you've been hearing the song for I don't know how many years you're like, ‘Okay, enough already.’ So finally I said you know, this song needs a little help.”
So Shiner adapted the I Have a Little Dreidl lyrics to Se Le Ve’s melody, which he says has a spinning quality, like the Jewish top. He got help translating the English to Spanish from Joey Sanchez, a bass player on the project. The two dive into the lyrics.
“Yo tengo dreidlito de barro lo forme,” recounts Shiner. “I made it out of clay, right,” explains Sanchez.
“Yeah. And then cuando esté seco y listo,” continues Shiner. “When it’s dry and ready, el dreidl jugaré.”
“I will play with it. Oh, I will play it,” says Sanchez. “I'll play dreidl. Right! I’ll be ready to play dreidl, yeah!” Shiner notes.
Sanchez is from Puerto Rico and he got some laughs out of Shiner’s reinterpretation of the original Se Le Ve. ”When I heard that [medley]? I was like, Mitch is crazy!” remarks Sanchez. “But this is what I say most of the time. I'm telling you.”
Sanchez says that as a bass player who focuses on Latin music, he’s played these rhythms before. “But when [Mitch] added these melodies to this bass that we creating, it's magical.”
And then there’s Mi Yimalel, a more niche Hannukah song. It’s typically sung as a round. “That one’s a bit more on the traditional side,” explains Shiner. “The text is more serious. The text says, ‘Who can retell the things that befell us’ and it talks about pretty much all of the different groups who tried to attack and destroy the Jews throughout history.”
The Hannukah story details how Jews rose up against Greek invaders in ancient times in what’s known as the Maccabean revolt. The Maccabee warriors were able to reclaim the Jewish temple the Greeks had seized. During their rededication of the temple, the Maccabees lit the menorah and according to legend, witnessed a miracle. Since they only had enough oil for one night, but the oil lasted for eight days until they could get more.
Shiner wanted to honor this in the music. "Yeah, so this one has the propulsive rhythm of bomba sica from Puerto Rico and that is really centered on the 'boom cah catah, boom cah cahtah' that's going on underneath it. It kind of has a march-like quality I thought it was important, a good match for talking about the Maccabees, you know. A song about them going and marching, you know."
Shiner and Sanchez say they love this musical tradition they’ve created to honor Hannukah, just as much as they love a mix of latkes and salsa.
“I mean, really? What, it's a hashbrown, it's papas fritas," says Shiner, about latkes. "Right?”
“Yeah, it's papas fritas,” confirms Sanchez. “You can put ketchup on it or salsa from the tacos.” Shiner agrees. “Any, I mean, it can't be bad. Fried potatoes with any kind of sauce can't be bad.”
Move over sour cream and applesauce, there’s a new Hannukah tradition in the works — to eat and to listen to.