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A Look at Ernie Ensley, NY's Reigning Mambo King

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ERNIE ENSLEY'S spare one-bedroom in a Bronx housing complex for the elderly could hardly be further removed from the Palladium, the glamorous nightclub that presided at Broadway and 53rd Street from the 1940's into the 60's.

But sit on the raggedy futon, close your eyes and open your ears, and everything changes. Mr. Ensley, who turned 70 last week, has amassed in his East Tremont apartment an extraordinary collection of the mambo music that was performed at the Palladium and just about every other important Latin club in New York during mambo's heyday and in the decades since.

The items, which include thousands of audiotapes plus videotapes and other material, fill two closets and line a whole side of the living room, while Latin music posters cover most of the walls. In this shrine to mambo, in fact, about the only hint that Mr. Ensley cares about anything else are the photos of his 26-year-old daughter, Onkeea.

For years, Mr. Ensley has received many inquiries about his collection and, for the last few months, he has been negotiating their transfer to the Raices Latin Music Collection, a 16,000-item archive of Afro-Caribbean music based in the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem. In April, Raices received a grant from the Ford Foundation to obtain and preserve the tapes.

Last week, a longstanding verbal agreement between Mr. Ensley and Raices collapsed over Mr. Ensley's proposed consulting fee. But the negotiations will continue, and the outcome of those talks will be of compelling interest not only to aficionados of mambo and of Latin music in general, but also to music historians. While other collections of live mambo recordings may exist in private hands, musicians and officials at Raices say the Ensley tapes may be unique in their scope.

"As far as live recordings of so many musicians, bands, special events - it doesn't exist," said Ramon Rodriguez, the Conservatory director. "He has a vast knowledge of where, who and what happened with this music, because he was there.


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