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.
Mongo Santamaria – Watermelon Man (1963)
An early boogaloo track released in 1963, almost a decade before boogaloo became mainstream in the U.S., was Mongo Santamaria’s version of Watermelon Man. Mongo was an essential figure in the fusion of Cuban rhythms and R&B, paving the way for the boogaloo era in the mid- to late-‘60s. This cover of Herbie Hancock’s classic tune made it to the top of the pop charts and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Hancock, who took the job filling in for Chick Corea in Mongo’s band, recalled the first night Mongo heard Watermelon Man:
“[Donald Byrd] came to this supper club to see how I was doing. Anyway, during one of the intermissions, Donald had a conversation with Mongo, something about, ‘What are the examples of the common thread between Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latin music and African-American jazz?’ Mongo said he hadn’t really heard a thing that really links it together, he was still searching for it. And I wasn’t paying much attention to that conversation, it was a little too heavy for me at the time. But then all of a sudden Donald Byrd says, ‘Herbie, why don’t you play Watermelon Man for Mongo?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with the conversation they’re talking about?’ I thought it was a little funky jazz tune. So I started playing it, and then Mongo, he got up and he said, ‘Keep playing it!’ He went on the stage and played his congas, and it fit like a glove fits on a hand, it just fit perfectly. The bass player looked at my left hand for the bass line, and he learned that. Little by little, the audience was getting up from their tables, and they all got on the dance floor. Pretty soon the dance floor was filled with people, laughing and shrieking and having a great time, and they were saying, ‘This is a hit! This is fantastic!’ It was like a movie! So after that, Mongo said, ‘Can I record this?’ I said, ‘By all means.'”
Ray Barretto – El Watusi (1962)
Ray Barretto was a Puerto Rican drummer, percussionist, conga player and bandleader. His first hit El Watusi, recorded for his album Charanga Moderna, was released in 1962 and became one of the most successful Pachanga songs in the U.S. It is essentially a cha-cha with a strong downbeat — a form of Charanga. The song debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in April of 1963 and remained there for nine weeks, peaking at No. 17. Barretto became one the most important founders of boogaloo and what would later be known as salsa.
Ray Barretto – Acid (1968)
With this song, Barretto really got adventurous with an intense conga solo that unravels into a groovy and soulful funky beat. The whole album of the same name was very progressive in its fusion of Latin funk and soul, and became one of the most important and enduring boogaloo records of all time. Barretto was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Johnny Colón – Boogaloo Blues (1967)
Johnny Colón was born in New York with origins in Puerto Rico. He was the leader of the Johnny Colón Orchestra and the founder of the East Harlem Music School. He was a major contributor to the boogaloo sound, releasing an album in 1968 called Boogaloo Blues that established his place in the genre. Here is the title track, a great example of the boogaloo style.
Joe Cuba Sextet – Bang Bang (1966)
Gilberto Miguel Calderón Cardona, known as Joe Cuba, was a conga drummer of Puerto Rican descent who was born in New York’s Spanish Harlem. At 19 years old he started performing with Joe Panama but soon enrolled in college to study law. While at college he saw Tito Puente perform and introduced himself, which began a lifelong friendship. He was inspired to form his own band, the Joe Cuba Sextet, which debuted at the Stardust Ballroom. He is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Latin boogaloo, and his 1967 signature song Bang Bang was a key tune of the boogaloo era. Cuba was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Joe Bataan – Muñeca (1968)
Joe Bataan was born Bataan Nitollano in Spanish Harlem to parents of Filipino and African-American backgrounds. As a youth he was the leader of a Puerto Rican street gang, but he was arrested for stealing a car and was sent to a correctional institute. This turned out to be a blessing, as he veered away from a life of crime. Upon his release, he discovered his love of music, and he never looked back. Bataan became one of the most important and longest-running boogaloo artists, and he’s still performing today. He was featured in the aforementioned documentary We Like It Like That, which I highly recommend. Here is his song Muñeca, released in 1968 at the height of the boogaloo era. He went on to record with Fania Records and also formed his own label, Ghetto Records. He’s highly in demand as a vocalist and sings in both English and Spanish.
Tito Puente – Fat Mama (1966)
Ernesto Antonio Puente, known as “Tito” Puente, was born in Spanish Harlem in 1923. He was an instrumentalist (timbales and vibraphone), percussionist, songwriter, bandleader and producer. He was awarded both the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Billboard Latin Music Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.
Released on Tico Records, Puente’s 1966 recording Fat Mama was a serious, established bandleader’s response to the boogaloo craze. Record labels and promoters were insisting that the older, more traditional bandleaders record boogaloo tracks for their albums in order boost record sales and popularity. They did so, and therefore capitalized on the popular genre.
Pete Rodriguez – I Like It Like That (1967)
Pete Rodriguez was born in the Bronx in 1935 to Puerto Rican parents. He was a pianist and bandleader of his group Pete Rodríguez y su Conjunto. His most successful song was I Like It Like That, which was a huge hit and made it to the Billboard charts. The song has endured, inspiring the documentary of the same name, being featured in the 2014 film Chef, and having been sampled by modern artists Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin.
Eddie Palmieri – Ay Qué Rico (1968)
Eddie Palmieri was born in the Bronx in 1936, after his parents had moved to New York from Puerto Rico a decade earlier and settled in the predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood. He’s a pianist, composer and bandleader who started performing and competing in talent competitions at eight years old. By the time he was 11, he performed at Carnegie Hall and played in Tito Rodríguez’s band, among others. He was exposed to jazz early on, and he counts McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk as his main influences. Over the course of his career, he has won nine Grammys. He has recorded boogaloo tracks including Ay Qué Rico, from his 1968 album Champagne, released on Tico Records. The song even has the word boogaloo in the lyrics!
Picadillo – Reisito’s Boogaloo (2014)
Cuban-born Rey Rodriguez and Miami-based Cuban Sol Ruiz got together in Madrid and recorded their album Las Cosas de La Vida, which featured this delicious boogaloo. I discovered them at the Kultrún World Music Festival in Kitchener, Ont., and I’ve been a fan ever since. The boogaloo moves forward with younger artists like Picadillo, who fuse it with their own original style and make it their own.