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BOOGALU

by rita@salsacrazy.com

Boogalu (a.k.a. Boogaloo), a fusion of Rhythm and Blues and Cuban son montuno, was popular in the United States from 1966-69.  Boogalu was the first contemporary Latin music form that captured my attention because of its  funky sounds, engaging choral chants by the audience,  English lyrics, references to symbols of African American culture (“cornbread, hog maws and chitlins”),  and background sounds of raucous party goers.   Boogalu was a highly successful crossover musical style,  capturing the attention  of audiences who were previously not familiar with Latin music.

Boogalu resonated particularly with African American audiences.   Performers such as  Jimmy Sabater  and Joe Cuba clearly state that  Boogalu was inspired by the interaction between African American dancers and Latin musicians in New York at nightclubs such as Palm Gardens Ballroom. They recount stories of how the structure and tone of  Boogalu songs such as  “Bang, Bang” were developed in an  effort to appeal to African American dancers who were not responding to their traditional mambos and cha cha chas. Many of the Boogalu musicians report that they were also deeply influenced by the R+B, jazz and Doo Wap bands of that era.  Music historian Juan Flores, in his seminal work on Boogalu entitled “Cha Cha with a Backbeat,  suggests that the  song title and refrain  “ I Like It Like That”  may have some roots in a 1961 R+B tune with the same name composed by Chris Kenner, from New Orleans.  

By 1966 “Bang, Bang”, “ Pete’s Boogalu” and “I Like it Like That” had captured the American public.  Major boogalu bandleaders included Joe Cuba, Ricardo Ray, Pete Rodriguez and Johnny Colon.  During its heyday nearly every major Latin band recorded boogalus including Ray Barretto, El Gran Combo and even Eddie Palmieri, one of the styles most visible opponents. According to JJ Rassler in a  Descarga.com article, Boogalu occupied a unique position in Latin music history since it emerged as the popularity of  Charanga music was waning and before the emergence of Salsa.

 According to music historian Juan Flores,  Boogalu was not an accidental development in Latin  music but was the embodiment of the social  and cultural interplay found on the streets of  Black and Spanish Harlem. 

 “As neighbors and coworkers, African Americans and Puerto Ricans in New York had been partying together for many years.  For decades they had been frequenting the same clubs, with Black and Latin bands often sharing the billing  … African American audiences generally appreciated and enjoyed Latin music styles, yet those who fully understood the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythms and came to master the challenging dance movements remained the exception rather than the rule… Popular Latin bands found themselves creating a musical common ground by introducing the trappings of Black American culture into their performances and thus getting the Black audiences involved and onto the dance floor.  “Bang Bang” by the Joe Cuba sextet and Latin boogaloo music in general was intended to constitute this meeting place between Puerto Ricans and Blacks and by extension, between Latin music and the music culture of the United States.” (Flores 2000) 

There was no structured dance style or patterns  associated with Boogalu.  It tended to be a freestyle dance without a closed embrace where partners often faced each other  and created spontaneous innovative steps in response to the music much like other popular dances of the 60's. 

As with most issues in Latin music, there is a great deal of debate about who was the first person to coin the term “boogalu or to create the musical style .  Richie Ray was certainly among the first innovators with his 1967 album Jala Jala Y Boogalu.  The song “Pete’s Boogalu” written by trumpeter Tony Pabon was the first Latin boogalu song to be played on the radio.

 What happened to the golden age of Boogalu? Was it just a passing musical phase, edged out by Salsa and Rock and Roll? Not everyone had been ecstatic about the popularity of Boogalu.  In an interview by Max Salazar,  Fernando “King Nando” Rivera revealed his view of the rise and eventual fall of Boogalu. 

 “We felt the jealousy of the older band members.   The boogalu didn’t die out. It was killed off by envious old bandleaders, the only booking agent at the time,  a few dance promoters and a popular Latin music disc jockey.  We were the hottest bands and we drew the crowds.  But we were never given top billing or top dollar.  The boogalu bandleaders were forced to accept package deals’ which had us hopping all over town…one hour here, one hour there…for small change.  When word got out that we were going to unite and not accept the package deals any longer, our records were no longer played on the radio.  The boogalu era was over and so were the careers of most of the boogalu bandleaders."  (Salazar 1997)

Others such as Willie Torres have another explanation for the disappearance of  Boogalu.

“…the main responsibility for the eclipse  of boogaloo in the name of salsa, aside from the musicians themselves, was Fania Records.  Thought the category of salsa did not come into currency until 1972, it was Fania that shook New York Latin music loose of the boogaloo and went on to define the sound of the 1970s to world audiences." (Flores 2000) 

Though  the heyday of boogalu was brief, the music form continues to endure.  In the late 1990’s Nito Nieve’s breathed new life into the form with his  rendition of “I Like it Like that”, adding hip hop, rap and house music stylings to this old standard.  Boogalu may have reached new heights (or depths?) of cross-over appeal when the Nieve’s version of  this song became the background music for Burger King commercials in the late 1990’s.   Contemporary Salsa bands continue to revive old boogalus and create new pulsating, energetic  selections such as those  found on CD such as Salsa Con Swing by Sonora Carruseles and Grupo Gale's "Boogalu con Gale" on their tenth anniversary CD.

 If you want to hear boogalu and Latin Funk selections, log into http://www.pussycatclub.org.uk/SoundClips/Latin.htm  or http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/350/the_mambo_boys.html and listen to some vintage soundclips.   For interviews with Boogalu artists (Pete Rodriguez, Johnny Colon, Joe Cuba) about the impact and untimely demise of boogalu, log into http://www.afropop.org/radio/program_stream/ID/9/New%York:Back%20In%The%Day.

BOOGALOO PROFILES

There were many popular Boogaloo bands including Joe Cuba, Johnny Colon, Ricardo Ray, Joe Bataan, King Nando, Joey Pastrana, the Lebron Brothers, the Hi-Latins, Pete Terrace and Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers.  This section will profile several of the important musicians  that were synonymous the infectious, funky  sounds of Boogalu.

JOE CUBA

 Joe Cuba ( born Gilberto Miguel Calderon) of Puerto Rican descent grew up in Spanish Harlem surrounded African American and Puerto Rican music and culture.  A talented conga player he began his career playing with the Joe Panama Quintet.  He went on to  took over the leadership of this band which ultimately became “The Cha Cha Boy’s".  They made their first appearance at the San Juan Club in 1953.  The Cha Cha Boys band was later named The Joe Cuba Sextet and they began holding court at the Starlight Room in the Bronx.  The Joe Cuba Sextet was comprised of timbales, vibraphones, piano, bass and wonderful  singers like legendary Jimmy Sabater and Cheo Feliciano.  Jimmy Sabater and Joe Cuba wrote the song “Bang, Bang”  which is on the CD Wanted Dead or AliveWanted Dead or Alive sold over a million copies and climbed to number 63 in the US pop chart in 1966.

During an interview I conducted with Joe Cuba in October 2000, he said that his 1965  tune called “El Pito”  contained many elements synonymous with his later Boogalu style.  "El Pito" is was based on a Dizzy Gillespie melody  "I'll Never Go Back to Georgia."  "El Pito" was created  to finish an album called We Must Be Doing Something Right.  Cuba said in his desperation to complete the album he told the band members to repeatedly play the band’s sign off musical phrase (Asi Se Gozar) and they were instructed to laugh, talk, clap and create a party atmosphere.  The song was constructed around this recurring musical theme, interspersed with joyful, raucous party sounds. Cuba later added the sound of whistles.    When a  DJ at WBLS radio in New York played "El Pito", it  was an immediate hit.  During live performances, Joe would whip his audiences into a frenzy by throwing  whistles out to the crowd so that they could join in the fun.

Why have the sounds of the legendary Joe Cuba endured so long?  According to Max Salazar the answer is simple.  “The success of the Joe Cuba Sextet is a result of elements, six musicians, four self taught …original songs…quality arrangements.. the intended execution of the arrangements and promotion." (Salazar 1992)

 Joe Cuba is considered one of the first Latino/Nuyorrican (New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent) Salsa musicians to incorporate English into his lyrics. Recently Alfredo Naranjo,percussionist,  released Las 6 Es La Cita: Tributo A Joe Cuba.  Joe Cuba remains quite active and  ebullient about his life, his music and the Harlem neighborhood where he still lives.  He is one of the founders of the International Salsa Museum and has recorded over 20 albums.  If you go to the International Salsa Museum in New York, you just might run into him--like I did.

 THE LEBRON BROTHERS 

The Lebron Brothers  were raised in Brooklyn of  Puerto Rican descent and organized their first band in 1965.  Originally composed of Pablo (lead vocals), Jose (piano), Angel (Bass), Frankie(Congas)  and Carlos( Bongos), they  rode the wave of boogalu popularity from 1968-1974.  Later other family members Ruben (Trombone) and Nadine (piano) and Corrine (vocals) recorded with the band. Still popular in Colombia even in the 1990s, their music was a melding of Latin  music with Spanish and English lyrics with a smattering African American Doo Wop influences.  Legend has it that George Goldner, their record producer for Cotique crowned them with the name The Lebron Brothers.  Their album Psychedelic Goes Latin, released in 1967, was extremely popular.  Their biggest hit record was "Salsa Y Control"  recorded in 1970 and established them as heavy hitters resulting them recording over 30 CDs in their career.  They are known for their driving bass line, earthy piano stylings and blaring horns.   Their sound was heavily influenced by soul melodies and hard vibrant  urban funky styling of R+B groups such as Frankie Lymon.

In a interview with Nelson Rodriguez , Angel reveals racial discrimination affected their music career because their Afro-Puerto Rican looks.

 “One club in particular, La Casa Blanca on 53rd and Broadway , would not hire in the year 1975/76 due to our skin color.  The owner then was a Cuban named Bobby who refused to showcase us even though we had a number one hit with Al Impulse.  A year later an incident came up during a New York radio interview and the reaction resulted in the club closing down.  It was a rude awakening to the guys that a Latino would do this to them because of their skin color.”

Boogalu lovers  should pick up the Nasimento release that includes Psychedelic Goes Latin and The Brooklyn  BumsThe Best of the Lebron Brothers is a wonderful compilation CD , with hits such as "Salsa Y Control" and "Vacilon".  These CDs will give you a sampling of the gritty, street wise sound that characterized the Lebron Brothers.   Their  discography can be found on www.musicofpuertorico.com/en/lebron_brothers.html and at www.oursalsathing.com/musi.htm. 

Though Pablo retired from the group in 1981, they continued to perform and produce CDs the most recent one was the 2000  CD called “Lo Mistico” and “Super Hits Vol.2”

 Other bands continue to perform covers of their hits such as "Salsa Y Control".  Many feel the the Lebron Brothers were one of the most underappreciated bands of the Boogalu era.  Check out their music and keep Boogalu alive.
 

 BOOGALU HIT PARADE

Even though the heyday of Boogalu was the short period of 1966-1969, the hits and the bands from that era are too numerous to mention.  But here a short list of classic Boogalu tunes.

Song Album/Artist
Bien Dulce Let's Ball/Pastrana
El Watusi Acid/Barretto
I like it like that I like it like that/Rodriguez
El Pito We must be doing something Right/Cuba
Bang, Bang Wanted Dead or Alive/Cuba
Salsa Y Control Salsa Y Control/ Lebron Brothers
Micaela I like it like that/Rodriguez
Ay Que Rico! Champagne/Palmieri
Gypsy Woman Gypsy Woman/Bataan
Let's Ball Let's Ball/Pastrana
   

  REFERENCES

Salazar, Max  Development of Latin Music in New York City: Lecture at UCLA.  Latin Beat Magazine May 1997

Rodriguez, Nelson. The Lebron Brother: The Funky Side of Latin Music. Latin Beat Magazine March 2000 

Rassler, JJ. The Lebron Brothers 1992, www.descarga.com/cgi-bin/db/archives/Profile11

 Salazar, Max.  To Be With You. Joe Cuba Sextet.  Latin Beat Magazine.  June/July 1992.

Salazar Max, The History  of Latinized Afro-American Rhythms. Latin Beat Magazine, Oct 1997

Flores, Juan “Cha Cha with a Backbeat” in From Bomba to Hip Hop pp 77-129  Columbia University Press 2000

 

My special thanks goes to Max Salazar and Juan Flores who were invaluable in helping me assemble this material.