Boogaloo Nights

Boogaloo Nights

A new generation rediscovers the freewheeling rhythms of the Nuyorican bugalú.

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Since the 1960s, Latin music legend Joe Bataan has played venues from East Harlem to East Berlin, but sometimes even he can be surprised by a new audience. Last June he headlined a show in a trendy Brooklyn club near the Manhattan Bridge, where he was backed by Bronx River Parkway, a multiracial band made up of Latin aficionados, most of them four decades his junior. Bataan described the mostly white and Asian-American crowd as “a lot of hippies” until he was gently corrected: “Oh, I meant hipsters.”

Bataan might as well get used to it. Though he still draws crowds of middle-aged fans who grew up on his unique blend of sweet soul singing and Afro-Cuban rhythms, a younger generation is rediscovering the Latin boogaloo sound that Bataan found fame with. Born somewhere between Chicago and New York, between black and brown, the music’s initial era burned bright but briefly–yet forty years later, the boogaloo is back.

The very term “boogaloo” invokes a sensation of something both familiar and exotic, slick with lubricious grooves and a punch of funk. It began as a dance but with no set steps or patterns. Dancing the boogaloo was about letting loose in whatever way possible–tossed heads, flailing limbs, kicking feet and all. Little wonder that musicians would find ways of translating that kinetic energy into rhythm. According to lore, in 1965 the Detroit R&B duo of Robert “Tom” Tharpe and Jerry “Jerrio” Murray attended a hop sponsored by Herb “Kool Gent” Kent, a DJ from Chicago’s WVON. There, they saw black teenagers performing a frenzied, energetic dance. When they asked its name, the teens replied it was from Spanish Harlem and called the boogaloo.

Tom and Jerrio recorded a seven-inch titled “Boo-Ga-Loo,” a thunderous, proto-funk jam filled with rumbling drums, swinging hand claps and vaguely salacious grunts and yells. The song was an instant hit, rocketing to more than a million sales, and immediately inspired a series of boogaloo-themed songs in R&B and jazz, ranging from A.C. Reed’s scorching funk single “Boogaloo Tramp” to the freewheeling grooves of the Jazz Crusaders’ “Ooga-Boo-Ga-Loo.”

Like the dance that inspired it, boogaloo in the R&B and jazz worlds were freestyles, with no set formula. Notably though, for a music fad inspired by a dance purportedly from Spanish Harlem, these boogaloos bore no discernible Latin influences. It wasn’t until the boogaloo returned home to New York in 1966 that it acquired a Latin sabor, one intermeshed in both African-American and Latin-American rhythmic traditions.

There’s little agreement over who transformed the R&B boogaloo into the Latin bugalú, but the first to market its name was probably Brooklyn bandleader Ricardo “Richie” Ray. On his 1966 album Se Soltó, Ray prominently announced the debut of the “bugaloo,” a Latin rhythm that he described as a “PHunky cha cha.” For Ray, the bugaloo meant more than just a new style; his liner notes also proclaim that it was “the first real bridge” to bring Latin and African-American dance and music styles together. Ray’s was a bold claim but not particularly accurate. Jazz had already served as a crossroads of exchange for black and Latin music, beginning as early as Dizzy Gillespie and Machito’s Afro-Cuban suites of the 1940s. By the early ’60s, there were any number of big R&B/Latin crossover hits, especially the slinky 1963 remake of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” by Cuban master percussionist Mongo Santamaria.

What made bugalú different was as much generational as it was musical. The players who led the movement were an emergent cadre of “Nuyoricans,” New York-born and -raised Puerto Ricans. They came of age in and around working-class black and Latino neighborhoods, in a musical polyglot where the honeyed doo-wop sounds of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were as resonant as Tito Puente’s spirited mambos. When mambo’s crown venue, the Palladium Ballroom, closed in 1966, bugalú was already rising to provide the next big thing.

The clarion call came with the 1966 single “Bang Bang,” by the Joe Cuba Sextet. Headed by veteran conguero Cuba and his “velvet”-voiced singer Jimmy Sabater, the Sextet built “Bang Bang” around a hammering piano riff that leads into a series of loud hand claps and a chorus of beeps and sighs, and climaxes with a nonsensical hook of “Bang! Bang!” Outside a few random Latin culinary references (lechon!), the song had no real songwriting, but its propulsive energy and memorable chants transcended culture and language. “Bang Bang” was a massive success, charting more than a million copies and all but kick-starting the bugalú craze. Within months, bugalú bands had all but taken over New York’s Latin dance halls and radio playlists.

The sound’s colorful flair and spirit of self-invention were matched in the new personalities who rode its initial wave. Self-proclaimed as el rey (king) of bugalú, Pete Rodriguez, depicting himself as a swinging ’60s bachelor on his record covers, scored two immense hits, “I Like It Like That” and “Oh, That’s Nice!” Contrasting with Rodriguez’s dapper playboy image was the brooding, gangster-obsessed Willie Colón. The future megastar of salsa was only 17 when he cut bugalús like “Willie Baby” for his provocatively titled El Malo (The Bad One) album.

The real gangster, though, was Bataan. Born to a Filipino father and a black mother, Bataan passed for Puerto Rican in East Harlem–so much so that he led the Nuyorican street gang the Dragons in the early ’60s. Bataan was a respected street fighter whose short jail stints persuaded him to seek a more productive form of expression.

This complex cross-cultural heritage seeped into his music; his first major hit came in 1967 with a bugalú cover of the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman,” a song originally influenced by Curtis Mayfield’s interest in Latin rhythms. Bataan borrowed more than just Mayfield’s song–unlike other bugalú vocalists with their showy, belting voices, Bataan preferred the sweet, soulful touch of Mayfield and the Impressions, Lymon and the Teenagers, and other sensitive soul men. Bataan was a gifted arranger and bandleader, but his greatest mark came in how he drizzled his richly emotive voice over his band’s chattering Afro-Cuban rhythms.

The bugalú formula itself was consistent. Simplicity was central. The catchiest bugalús kept the core rhythm uncluttered–a simple bass line or piano riff would suffice–with some blaring brass on top and rollicking percussion beneath. Unlike their older Latin forebears, who sang in Spanish, Nuyorican songwriters penned their catchy hooks in English. These choices endeared bugalús to a large cross-cultural audience and made them exportable. By 1967 and ’68, bands from Puerto Rico to Panama, Colombia to Peru, expanded bugalú‘s popularity across the Latin Caribbean and South America. “Black” and “brown” musical styles had been in conversation for years, from the Cuban clave rhythm powering the famed “Bo Diddley beat” to Perez Prado’s mambo-fying of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist.” But the bugalú existed at the busiest of these crossings, the cross-pollination of disparate strands of African musical traditions in the New World that the slave trade had previously thrown asunder. Few American-born Latin music styles had ever had such an impact abroad.

Yet even as bugalú created new fans, it was attracting enemies as well. New York’s Latin music machine was run through the loose collusion of record labels, club promoters and radio programmers. Traditionally, they had been able to use their muscle to force bands into deals that maximized profits for the owners but stiffed the players. When bugalú bands threatened to unite against this oligarchy, they found themselves blacklisted from radio play and ballroom bookings.

Meanwhile, bugalú had left former mambo giants like Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri on the sidelines, overshadowed by the popularity of their younger peers. The bugalú blacklist emboldened these elders to reclaim the dance halls and record charts with the blessing of a Latin music industry happy to have more familiar faces to work with. The strength of the backlash was great enough that, by 1969, the once flourishing music was floundering. In the words of Bataan, “They assassinated the bugalú.”

The main power identified with the blacklist was Fania Records. When attorney Jerry Masucci and bandleader Johnny Pacheco founded Fania in 1964, they were in the shadow of older Latin labels such as Tico, Alegre and Cotique. But bugalú acts such as Bataan, Bobby Valentin and Monguito Santamaria helped Fania catch their rivals. By the end of the ’60s, Fania was well on its way to eclipsing all other American Latin labels.

Eager as Fania had been to capitalize on the bugalú craze, it was also quick to join the blacklist once its artists started asking for more money and control. The suppression was complete once salsa became the next major Latin movement out of New York in the early ’70s. Salsa, with styles based around more traditional Latin rhythms than bugalú‘s cross-cultural fusion, proved to be even more successful, and labels like Fania found it easy to abandon the bugalú.

Even though bugalú vanished from mainstream view and its records went out of print by the early ’70s, the music maintained a cult following for decades. Bootlegs and compilations have kept many songs in rotation. More recently, Fania has led an unprecedented revival. When the Emusica Entertainment Group bought Fania’s catalog in 2005 (for a reputed $10 million), it astutely perceived a continuing market for the music. It has since re-released many of Fania’s bugalú-era albums–most for the first time on CD. Emusica has also commissioned tastemaker DJs like London’s influential Gilles Peterson and New York newcomer DJ Rumor to assemble album-length Latin soul mixes in an attempt to introduce the music to a new generation.

Bugalú was always a great bridge between communities; in its heyday, ballrooms would draw black, white and Latino fans from across New York’s boroughs to boogaloo the night away. With an equally diverse fan base in this emergent generation, bugalú continues to live up to the cross-cultural ideal it was born out of. That sentiment of unity is brought home on one of the new Fania anthologies, Latin Soul Man, dedicated to the late, great percussionist Ray Barretto. A Nuyorican from an older generation, he was an undisputed forefather of the bugalú. However, unlike his scornful peers, Barretto embraced the style; he even titled his 1967 album Latino Con Soul. The title track of another LP, Together (1969), appears on Latin Soul Man. On it, Barretto expresses the social idealism of the bugalú era, singing, “I know a beautiful truth and it’s helped me be free/I know I’m black and I’m white and I’m red/The blood of mankind flows in me.”

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