You’ve likely heard this word often, bandied about in band names, song titles, lyrics and nightclubs. But have you ever wondered what it actually means? I did, and I thought it was about time for Café Latino to put a lens to boogaloo and explore its origins, impact and legacy. 

Boogaloo, or bugalú, is a genre of Latin music and dance (unrelated to the hip-hop street dance style that emerged decades later), which rose to popularity in the 1960s. The bugalú originated among teenage Latinos in New York’s East Harlem, where there was a large population of Latin immigrants, and the dance was introduced into the American mainstream by the TV show American Bandstand.

In Harlem in the ‘60s, there was not only a large African-American population but also a mix of Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. The blues, R&B, doo-wop and soul were popular in the U.S., and African-Americans listened to this music — it was their music. Latinos enjoyed it, too, but they also listened to their own traditional music. But as teenagers tend to do, they associated their traditional Latin music with their parent’s generation.

African-American and Latino teens frequented the same nightclubs, and the bands that played in those establishments began to fuse the styles in an effort to find common ground to entertain their culturally diverse audiences. The bugalú was dance music that formed as a result of this fusion — a combination of styles including the blues, R&B, soul, cha-cha-chá, mambo, the Guajira, son montuno and more.

Latin music promoter and magazine publisher Izzy Sanabria said boogaloo was “the greatest potential that Cuban rhythms had to really cross over in terms of music.” (Boogaloo was in fact the predecessor to what we now call salsa — but that’s another fascinating story for another time.) It is said that without the boogaloo and its wide crossover appeal, the resulting state of Latin music would not have survived in the same way, at least not with the worldwide popularity that it has to this day.

Boogaloo fell out of favour and fizzled out by the late ‘70s. There’s an ongoing discussion about whether it was a dying fad that came and went naturally, or whether more established veteran musicians put pressure on booking agents, promoters and companies such as Fania Records in attempts to suppress the younger boogaloo bands that were usurping their popularity. The 2016 documentary We Like It Like That discusses the pressure put on the established older bands to record boogaloo songs to sell records — something the traditional bands did not like one bit, as they mostly considered boogaloo to be a bastardization of their traditional music. Most of the boogaloo bands went out of business; but some artists such as Joe Baatan and Willie Colón survived.

Today, boogaloo has made a big comeback, having been reevaluated as a serious, important and respected musical genre. Let’s look at some of the key boogaloo songs of its original era, and some of the songs bringing this contagious style back.