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'Latkes Con Salsa' melds Hanukkah favorites with Latin rhythms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the second night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Lighting candles each night is a central holiday tradition, 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. The project melds Hanukkah favorites with Latin rhythms. Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: The Latin-Jewish music connection has been strong over the decades, whether that's beloved Cuban singer Celia Cruz recording "Hava Nagila"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVA NAGILA")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing) Hava Nagila, Hava Nagila.

SILVER: ...Or Larry Harlow, a renowned Jewish pianist known for salsa recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY HARLOW, ORQUESTA HARLOW, AND JUNIOR GONZALEZ SONG, "LA CARTERA")

SILVER: It's a connection that's really struck Milwaukee musician Mitch Shiner.

MITCH SHINER: Like, one of my favorite styles of music is Latin jazz, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MATZOH BALL MERENGUE")

SILVER: "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."

SHINER: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MATZOH BALL MERENGUE")

SILVER: He says these musical traditions share a similar element - the harmonic minor.

SHINER: I have a melodica with me, so I can play it for you - sounds like this. (Playing melodica). 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES SONG, "I HAVE A LITTLE DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

SILVER: Shiner plays both the vibes and drums. His "Latkes Con Salsa" project is not only an album but also a live concert series in Milwaukee this winter. 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 Hanukkah called "I Have a Little Dreidel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE A DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES: (Singing) Hey. I have a dreidel made of clay. When it's dry and ready, dreidel I shall play.

SHINER: And it's very catchy, but yeah. After you've been hearing this song for I don't know how many years, you're, like, OK, enough already. So finally, I said, you know, this song needs a little help.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE A LITTLE DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES: (Singing) Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel...

SILVER: So Shiner adapted the lyrics to "Se Le Ve's" melody, which he says has a spinning quality like a dreidel. He got help translating the English to Spanish from Joey Sanchez, a bass player on the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE A LITTLE DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES: (Singing in Spanish).

JOEY SANCHEZ: Then you say, (speaking Spanish).

SHINER: Yeah, (speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SHINER: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Yeah, basically, I made it out of - how do you say - (speaking Spanish)?

SHINER: It's clay, right?

SANCHEZ: Yeah (laughter).

SHINER: And then (speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: When it's dry and ready, then dreidel...

SHINER: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ: I will play with it, or I will play it.

SHINER: I'll play dreidel. Right.

SANCHEZ: Yeah (laughter).

SHINER: I'll be ready to play dreidel. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE A LITTLE DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES: (Singing in Spanish).

SILVER: Sanchez is from Puerto Rico, and he got some laughs out of Shiner's reinterpretation of the original "Se Le Ve."

SANCHEZ: When I heard it, I was, like, Mitch is crazy, but this is what I say most of the time.

SHINER: (Laughter).

SANCHEZ: I'm telling you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HAVE A LITTLE DREIDEL / SE LE VE - MEDLEY")

MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES: (Singing in Spanish).

SANCHEZ: Me, as a bass player in this project, this music that - you know, I feel like I've been playing before. But when he add these melodies to this bass that we creating, it's magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MI YIMALEL BOMBA")

SILVER: And then there's "Mi Yimalel," a more niche Hannukah song. It's typically sung as a round.

SHINER: That one's a little bit more on the traditional side. It has a little - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MI YIMALEL BOMBA")

SILVER: The Hanukkah story details how the 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MI YIMALEL BOMBA")

SHINER: Yeah. So this one has the propulsive rhythm of bomba sica from Puerto Rico. And that is really centered on the (vocalizing) - that 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, the song about them going and marching, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MI YIMALEL BOMBA")

SILVER: Shiner and Sanchez say they love this musical tradition they've created to honor Hanukkah just as much as they love a mix of latkes and salsa.

SHINER: I mean, really - what? - it's basically - it's a hash brown. It's papas fritas, right?

SANCHEZ: Yeah. It's papas with - you can put ketchup on it or salsa from the tacos.

SHINER: Right, any - right. I mean, what is - it can't be bad. Fried potatoes with any kind of sauce, like, can't be bad.

SILVER: Move over, sour cream and applesauce. There's a new Hanukkah tradition in the works to eat and to listen to. For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MITCHELL SHINER LATIN VIBES' "MI YIMALEL BOMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.