Boogaloo

The Palladium days of the 50s and early 60s were the high point of Latin music in America, a golden age of Cuban rhythms and all night parties, of legendary Mambo Kings and  pin-up soneros. But in the late 60s, the glamorous band leaders were  replaced by a  gang of Puerto Rican kids coming from New York’s Spanish Harlem. They came out swinging, armed with an infectious style of music called Boogaloo.

elcombonacional_boogalooBoogaloo sounded Latin, but it sure as hell wasn’t the sophisticated music of old. It was to Cuban son what punk was to classic rock, a leaner, and more aggressive mutant brother. The lyrics were in English as often as in Spanish, and the musician was just as likely to be influenced by the doo-wop of their Italian neighbours as by the mambos they heard growing up. Musically simple and full of energy, Boogaloo took off in a big way, spawning a dance craze that lasted two years, and growing from a localised style into a nationwide phenomenon and then disappearing entirely, pushed out by the very big band leaders the crazy kids had displaced a few years earlier.

The song below, At the Party, by Hector Rivera, was an early hit of the Boogaloo era, coming out in 1966 and paving the way for the wave that followed. It has many of the hallmarks of a classic Boogaloo song: hand clapping, a simple piano riff, raucous background yells, and catchy, repetitive lyrics.

African-Americans and Latinos had danced side by side in the clubs for years, and as early as the 40s,  musicians from each camp had jammed together to create Latin Jazz. Boogaloo was a continuation of this trend, but while the Latin musicians before them had  stayed true to the Cuban tradition they came out of, the Boogaloo brigade grabbed what was around them in El Barrio, and blues, jazz, soul and doo-wop were put with Latin grooves of the simplest kind; the kind most likely to get everyone, of whatever colour or background, on the dance floor and grooving.

Johnny Colon’s Boogaloo Blues was another early hit and is part of the holy trilogy of 1966 singles , alongside At the Party, and Peter Rodriguez’s I Like It Like That (familiar to anyone in the UK who’s been to an Odean cinema in the last decade). The song below is from the album of the same name.

As Boogaloo soared, so the band leaders from the Palladium days declined. Some of them were actively opposed to Boogaloo, on musical grounds, as well as on the grounds that the damn kids had taken their gigs. Many of them hitched a ride on the gravy train and recorded their own Boogaloos, with varying results. Joe Quijano, who had been around since 57, was one such artist, and his Fun City Shing-a-ling is one of my favourite songs from the period (shing-a-ling was another word for Boogaloo).

Boogaloo was a musical movement too damn wild to last for long. Many of the musicians around at the time blame the old band leaders for its demise, accusing them of blocking Boogaloo’s access to radio and clubs. Whatever the truth of the matter, Boogaloo died, and the way was clear for the band leaders to come back. They went on to create another golden age of Latin Music with the salsa boom, and Boogaloo was forgotten, along with many of its principal exponents. The songs remain, a record of a time when people let go of musical and racial hang ups and partied together in a spirit of optimism.

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