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.