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Congahead: Martin Cohen

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Martin Jaffee reflects on Martin Cohen’s lifelong love affair with Latin music.

On stage, hidden behind my full set of congas and bongos—a warm evening at Cain Park, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the Workmen’s Circle Klezmer Orchestra ( now Tischler Klezmer Orchestra) launches into Ich Hob Dich and I latch onto a sinuous Latin rhumba on my congas. The music soars and sweeps, sighs and cries—we segue into another Latin inflected rhythm, Miserlou, the clarinet caresses the haunting melody while I build a syncopated rhythm under the structure.

In my musical milieu, I am known as ‘Congito’ and my musical debt is huge to Martin Cohen, now aged 82, the founder of LP ( Latin Percussion) – the world’s largest producer of congas, bongos, cajons, cowbells, stands — exotic percussion instruments.

A year before LP was born in 1964, 51 years ago today (Aug. 12th), Martin took this photo of himself (with beard), Jose Grajales. Front row, Cesar and Johnny “Dandy” Rodriguez. Photo taken in the attic of my home in Maywood, NJ, the birthplace of Latin Percussion.

Cohen, who described himself to NPR as, ‘a poor Jewish guy from the Bronx who Can’t speak Spanish’ began his journey into Latin music in 1956 when at age 17 he snuck into Birdland, a New York jazz venue to hear Cal Tjader and found, ‘music so infectious I have never lost my love for it—I became devoted to these players, they were my heroes.’

In his autobiography Congahead, Cohen detailed his lifelong immersion into Latin music and the process that led to designing and manufacturing world-class instruments. ‘I did my most important research in Latin dance halls in the South Bronx, after hour clubs—I was the only non-Latin—a lot of people probably thought I was an undercover policeman’.

Inspired by his fascination with Latin music, Cohen began to attend jam sessions and decided he wanted to play the bongos — only to find that with the Cold War tensions of the time and the embargo of products from Cuba in 1962, high-quality congas, bongos and percussion instruments were in short supply.

By this time, Cohen had graduated from a mechanical engineering program and was working at Bendix, a manufacturer of health care equipment. So began his trial and error efforts to design and produce quality bongos from his own designs and work with mahogany. With encouragement from his musician friends, Cohen found a market for his bongos and cowbells and he could be seen often at after-hours clubs and jams carrying paper bags full of bongos.

Martin was recognized by WBAI and Nando Albericci in 2018 for his over 50 years of work in building a percussion company and industry, and the importance of his video channel, youtube.com/congahead.

Perhaps inspired by the success of bongos he designed for Mongo Santamaria, and being fired by Bendix when he was discovered using their machinery to build some bongo mounting parts, Bendix fired Cohen and as he noted, ‘laughed when he told them of his intent to make bongos for a living.’

Hoping his network of Latin musicians would buy his products, Cohen began LP in 1964 renting manufacturing space in New Jersey and revolutionizing the world of Latin percussion. Cohen designed and manufactured a fibreglass conga with more vibrant and louder sound than traditional wood instruments— he designed a mounting bracket for bongos so they could be played on a stand with a player standing, not crouched on a stool (trust me I own LP fibreglass congas and bongos on a stand and any player over 30 owes him eternal gratitude.)

By 2002, LP was the largest percussion company in the world and was sold to Kaman, a global manufacturer of diverse products including musical instruments.

Martin remains a leader in the percussion and musical field today and his Congahead website which is run from his home video studio is a site of live performances from Latin music greats and over 1,000 YouTube videos and 130,000 subscribers to his channel. He is also a noted photographer and his archive of Latin musicians from the ’50s to now is unparalleled.  A photo he took of Tito Puente in the 1980s was used on a USPS stamp in 2011.

While not active in LP any longer, Cohen described the business philosophy that enhanced his brand, ‘I put my name on the LP labels so someone would always know who to complain to if the product failed.’

The rich Jewish-Latin musical crossover influence was well established in the years of the 1950s and ‘60s era of Martin Cohen.  Jewish journalist Mark Schwartz told NPR, ‘ With Latin music Jews of that time were able to distance themselves from the older generation that had come over. Jews were getting their American dream on.’

In the Jewish resorts of the Catskills, Latin musicians and Jewish musicians in Latin bands were immensely popular, as indicated by sales of the hot crossover album of the time, Mazel Tov Mis Amigos. Many popular Latin bands featured Jewish musicians, i.e. Harvey Averne, AKA Arvito, or Alan Levy, AKA Alfredito.  Barry Rogers of the Bronx (trombone) played in the band of famous Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri.

Martin and his family in 2016

Perhaps the best known of these Jewish-Latin crossover artists is Lawrence Ira Kahn, AKA, Larry Harlow, 81, pianist, who cited the cited the ‘similar rhythmic structure in Jewish/Latin music in an NPR interview in 2009. Harlow went to Cuba as a student in the mid-1950s, signed with salsa label Fania and produced/played on over 260 albums, won multiple Latin music awards and was known widely as, ‘El Judio Maravilloso’ (the marvellous Jew).

Jewish saxophonist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos told NPR, ‘ the distinct minor scale that makes Jewish and Latin music culturally compatible and magnetic—something that connects with Jewish experience in a really profound way.’

As I close this article the conga player Congito (AKA Martin Elliot Jaffe) is headed to my conga stand on the other side of the room. I have a remastered CD of the Irving Fields Trio from 1959, Bagels and Bongos. I’m working on a piece I hope to share with the Tischler Klezmer Orchestra for our summer concert, Havannah Negila. Muy fabulosa.

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Martin is a retired career counsellor from Jewish Family Services in Beachwood, Ohio.  He is a musician and writes and performs music with his wife Sheila Ives.
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