Heroes of Boogaloo
Boogaloo is back.
One of the musical genre’s innovators, the self-proclaimed “Afro-Filipino King of Latin Soul” Joe Bataan will play Friday at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Called the “first Nuyorican music” by producer Rene Lopez, boogaloo was born in 1960s. Often sung in both English and Spanish, boogaloo blends Latin rhythms like mambo and son with R&B, soul and doo-wop into a distinctly New York mishmash with a driving backbeat. As Juan Flores explains in From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, the musical fusion emerged in Manhattan dancehalls where Latino and black neighbors got together. At the same locale, mambo might dominate one night, and R&B another.
As Jimmy Sabeter of the Joe Cuba Sextet tells it in Flores' book, boogaloo’s birth occurred when the band first played its hit “Bang! Bang!” during a 1966 gig at the Palm Gardens Ballroom in midtown Manhattan. The sextet was playing songs from its new album, but the mostly African-American audience wasn’t moving.
“The place was packed, but when we were playing all those mambos and chachachas, nobody was dancing,” Sabeter said.
As the second set neared its end, Sabater convinced his bandleader to switch things up with a new tune he’d been working on. He walked over to the piano to start the song off with a blues riff. “Before I even got back to the timbal, the people were out on the floor, going ‘bi-bi, hah! bi-bi, hah!’ I mean mobbed!”
Unlike Joe Cuba, Bataan’s family didn’t come from a Latin background. His mother was African-American and his father Filipino. But growing up in New York’s East Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, he couldn’t help but feel the influence of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans living in his neighborhood.
“I was almost forced to learn another language,” Bataan said in an interview with Salsa-Central. “I learned Spanish from Puerto Rican friends of mine. And then I learned the beats and the salsa tunes they played on the jukebox from an early age.”
Always drawn to music, Bataan grew up singing along to an eclectic mix of Top 40 hits, broadway musicials and doo-wop. After joining the Dragons, a local gang, and winding up in Coxsachie Correctional Facility at the age of 18, Bataan started to pursue his hobby with more discipline. At Coxsachie, he picked up his first knowledge of music theory. After Batan's release in 1965, he would sneak into a local community center to practice piano.
By 1966, his first band, Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers, had signed with Fania Records. The next year, he had his first hit with “Gypsy Woman,” a Latino-fied cover of the Curtis Mayfield song. After eight records with Fania, including “Subway Joe” and the R&B hit “Riot!” Bataan moved on to the Salsoul label, which he co-owned. He explored Latin-disco fusion and made an early foray into hip hop with “Rap-O Clap-O” before putting his music career on a two-decade hiatus in 1981.
While some bands continue to record new boogaloo tracks, the genre saw its heyday in the 1960s and enthusiasm for it had petered out by the late 1970s. Many of boogaloo’s greatest exponents, like Ritchie Ray and Willie Colon, went on to make a name for themselves playing salsa and other Latin styles, with a less pronounced African-American influence.
But if you’re in D.C. today, you’ll have a chance to see one of Boogaloo’s greats discuss his music and perform live tonight. (The event will also be livestreamed.) If you’re not, you can get a better idea of Boogaloo’s sound by checking out the playlist above. Any classics you think we should add? Let us know in the comments.