American music has a unique privilege of containing within it so many different styles and genres. Among perhaps the most prolific of these styles is Jazz, rhythm and blues and Latin sound. People do not have to go far to get a sample of this uniquely American experience. It lives among the people right in their own neighborhood, especially in the urban areas like the San Francisco Bay Area.
A film called “The Last Mambo” is about the history of these styles in San Francisco. The documentary will be featured at the annual United Nations Association Film Festival this Oct. 15.
In addition to a visit to Havana, Cuba some time ago…“I was inspired to make this film by the closing of Jelly’s in 2010,” said Rita Hargrave, the film’s director.
Jelly’s was a popular salsa club in The Mission and then emerging Mission Bay District in the Eastern side of the City. Despite Jelly’s long-standing popularity, the San Francisco Port Commission ordered its closure and the lease was cancelled.
“It was known as the kind of place where anything can happen and did happen much to the delight of the audience,” said Luis Medina. He served as a DJ, from time to time at Jelly’s during its prime for over 16 years. As part of KPFA, Medina’s local radio personality, provided access to the SF Bay Area’s Latin/Salsa music scene.
As reported by El Tecolote at the time, Jelly’s forced closure by the SF Port Commission was due in part to a shooting that occurred. Long before violence in the Mission became routine, the Mission like many neighborhoods was a melting pot of cultures. Nightlife in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to the 1960s was shimmering. It was especially so during the Jazz to the Big Band Era, before and immediately after WWII. Areas of the City like The Fillmore became known as “the Harlem of the West Coast.”
Legendary columnist Herb Caen for the San Francisco Chronicle would often report on the clubs and live-performance venues. They were prolific and the City’s entertainment. It was well known that Hollywood stars would take a train just to go to San Francisco and take in the nightlife.
American music’s unique variety allowed for various styles of music to be heard and enjoyed. American music reflects its many people and cultures. Bands and artists we know today in popular music, like Miami Sound Machine, Selena, probably would not have reached the greater audience and high acclaim if it were not for local music venues – salsa clubs and night spots.
As trends and demographics changed, noted by urban planner and activist Sydney Céspedes, the Mission like other parts of the City was treated as a dumping ground for the City’s problems with industry, labor, immigration and the surge of drug problems that occurred from cocaine-crack infiltration in the 1980s.
As a result, The Mission District had increased violence like the shootings which officials cited as reason to close Jelly’s. Yet despite that the Mission, The Fillmore remained a place where working people lived and a mix of culture thrived. Few could forecast the wave of change that would occur in what is now called ‘gentrification.’
Ironically, as the ‘Dot-Com Boom’ and the ‘Digital Revolution’ arrived in the 1990’s it revived the City and neighborhoods like the Mission and The Fillmore as never before. But high-tech culture and business also changed San Francisco. “The City was picked up, shaken until it rattled, and then dropped into a new configuration,” noted historical essay writer Richard Walker.
It is still adjusting to that ‘new configuration. “As the Bay area struggles with exploding rates of homelessness, soaring real estate prices and rampant gentrification, performance spaces for diverse communities have vanished” said Hargrave. She is both director and one of the film’s producers. Hargrave mentioned the negative impacts of ‘gentrification’ specifically at the UNAFF press conference this past Sept. 21, via Zoom.
‘The Last Mambo’ documentary dives deep into the heart of the West Coast style of the various percussions and sounds, which can be heard in just about any American city. Yet, for the San Francisco Bay area the potent gumbo of Afro-Latin rhythms, jazz harmonies and funk heavy grooves at the clubs, provided a music micro-culture all it’s own. Unlike New York or Miami. “There is no one Cuban community, one Puerto Rican or Dominican community, says the film’s music director Wayne Wallace. Everything we do here artistically is a hybrid. There are so many different styles of music come out of this area, he added because nobody has to stay in one camp.”
Generations of Asians, Latinos and African-Americans who have settled in the Bay area and supported the music are honored and remembered in ‘The Last Mambo.’
The documentary celebrates this eclectic network of artists and audiences that are the soul of the Afro-Latin music community. As noted by Selma Abinader a veteran dancer of Salsa music. “When you went to the salsa clubs, you could dance with a dishwasher one moment and a brain surgeon the next.”
The film also explores the innovative ways local music educators like those at the College of San Mateo are engaging and inspiring young musicians, to pass on the tradition and to keep the community and music alive.
“If we find this scene and it touches our hearts we make it ours” says Jesse “Chuy” Valera, who is Music Director at KCSM – 91.1 FM – the College of San Mateo’s long-standing radio station.
But the future of Bay Area Salsa and Latin Jazz is on shaky ground. “I felt that we had do something that both documented the whole scene and inspired people to preserve the culture,” said Hargrave.
In spite of the current pessimistic situation, the loss of so many venues, ‘The Last Mambo’ is filmmaker Hargrave’s call to action for both performers and participants, as she said. “Now is the time to honor our past, support our present and advocate for our future.”
‘The Last Mambo’ will be one of the featured films screened at the 23rd annual United Nations Association Film Festival on October 15, 2020. There will be a Question & Answer session at 6pm PST. The festival continues for 11 days until Oct. 25. For details visit the UNAFF website.