Shfl Guide: Latin Boogaloo

Latin boogaloo owes its invention to a familiar progenitor of creativity: a generation gap. By the mid-‘60s in New York City, a young cadre of singers and musicians were hungry to stake a claim in the city’s competitive Latin music scene. Many were still teenagers who had grown up listening to the mambo machinations of giants like the “Two Titos” — Puente and Rodriguez — but they were also fans of doo-wop and R&B, dreaming of becoming the next Frankie Valli. It’s at this intersection, between Afro-Cuban rhythms and American soul, that boogaloo emerged as a compelling crossover style for the younger cohort to call their own.

As a musical term, “boogaloo” first arose in 1965 to refer to a dance style popularized by R&B recordings like Tom and Jerrio’s hit single “Boo-Ga-Loo,” though debates still rage about what came first: the boogaloo dance or the boogaloo song. Regardless, its “Latinfication” followed in 1966 as New York musicians began to tinker with combining the infectious rhythms of Afro-Cuban dance styles like guajira and guaguanco with backbeats and basslines inspired by the latest R&B hits. That combination proved irresistible, first to the multi-racial audiences who flocked to dance halls where artists like Pete Rodriguez and the Joe Cuba Sextet performed. Radio play further amplified the style’s reach and popularity, especially as most boogaloo songs were performed in English rather than en español. Boogaloo may never have attained the popularity of rock n’ roll or hip-hop but all three share similar roots as products of cross-cultural encounters and exchanges that brought together multiple communities of listeners and fans. 

It’s hard to overstate boogaloo’s popularity, not just in New York but globally. Recordings quickly sprouted up in countries like Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Boogaloo even made it over to West Africa, as musicians from Senegal down to Guinea recorded their own takes on the style in their native languages, bringing the Afro-Cuban influences in boogaloo back to their cultural origins.

Even older musicians, many of whom initially dismissed boogaloo as a dumbed-down version of the Latin music they held to be more “pure,” found it difficult to avoid the trend if they wanted to stay relevant on radio and record charts. Much like how, a decade later, skeptical soul music artists would dabble in disco as an act of career survival, some of boogaloo’s more vocal detractors, including Eddie Palmieri and Larry Harlow, would eventually record memorable boogaloo tracks, however ambivalently.

The backlash against boogaloo by the Latin music establishment may explain why its lifespan was relatively brief, between 1966 and 1969. Yet even in that short span, it helped launch long careers for the likes of Joe Bataan, Ricardo Ray, Bobby Marin, Louis Ramirez, and Willie Colón. But for most others, such as Johnny Colon, Pete Rodriguez, and Monguito Santamaría, their recording output didn’t last far beyond boogaloo’s demise, especially once the salsa movement was in full swing by the early ‘70s.

Regardless, boogaloo’s continued influence is still resonant in 21st century pop music, whether in songs like Cardi B’s “I Like It” which directly samples from Rodriguez’s hit “I Like It Like That,” or in modern boogaloo records cut by groups like New York’s Spanglish Fly or Los Angeles’s Boogaloo Assassins. Given that it was always, at its heart, dance music, its ability to transcend the decades isn’t a mystery: so long as people are inspired to cut a rug to its rhythms, the boogaloo will live on.

Take A Trip Pussycat cover

The inaugural album for the short-lived but memorable Latin soul label, Speed, Take A Trip Pussycat is really two albums in one. One half featured bandleader Luis Aviles in charge of Spanish language Afro-Cuban guaguancos and boleros. Arguably more significant was the under-recognized songwriting and arranger pair of Bobby Marin and Louis Ramirez who handled all of the English language boogaloo songs such as “Take A Trip,” “Pussycat” and the unexpectedly funky “(I’ll Be A) Happy Man.” For their half, Marin and Ramirez laid out all manner of sexual and drug innuendo and the cover even featured a naked woman hidden within its seemingly abstract image; not your average boogaloo LP in the least. 

Hey Sister cover

The son of Latin music giant Mongo Santamaria, Monguito Santamaria enjoyed a short but memorable career in the Latin soul era of the mid/late 1960s. The second of three LPs he recorded with Fania, Hey Sister was the most memorable of the trio, riding on the strength of now-classic boogaloo tracks such as the aptly named “Groovetime” and the lively title track that clearly borrows its opening riff from the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” 

Charanga Moderna cover

After a notable stint working with Tito Puente’s orchestra in the 1950s, conguero Ray Barretto struck out on his own as a bandleader in the early ‘60s. Charanga Moderna was his first hit LP, largely thanks to the surprise success of “El Watusi”, a landmark single in the history of Latin soul. The Watusi was originally a R&B dance craze but in Barretto’s hands, he took its original, jaunty rhythms and slowed them down to create an irresistible groove while also injecting classic pachanga stylings like darting flutes and strings. This is no one-hit wonder LP though as songs like “Guajira Y Tambo” and “Aprieta El Pollo” are equally infectious for dance floor crowds. 

Champagne cover

Champagne’s first song, “Ay Qué Rico,” opens with someone asking “como, Palmieri, boogaloo?” i.e. “what, Palmieri, a boogaloo?” It’s a sly way of referencing how the Latin jazz pianist and future salsa star had famously dismissed boogaloo as “bubblegum” and yet, on this 1968 album, Palmieri is either bending to the demands of the market or perhaps just trolling listeners. Either way, Palmieri proved himself more than capable of cooking up Latin soul on his terms as on the slinky “Ay Qué Rico” and the album’s big stomper, “Twist Africano,” but the album’s more traditional Afro-Cuban stylings are equally compelling, especially the six minute son montuno closer, “Si Las Nenas Me Dejan, Que.”  

I Like It Like That (A Mi Me Gusta Asi) cover

Though the Latin boogaloo era produced any number of chart-topping classics — the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “Bang Bang” or “Boogaloo Blues” by Johnny Colón for example — if you had to choose one definitive hit, it’s hard to deny Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” that honor. It has a perfect slow burn build-up that culminates in a rollicking, hook built around a driving piano montuno and that memorable chorus lead by Tony Pabon, singing in English. Yet, it’d be a wild mistake to suggest Rodriguez was a “one hit wonder.” On this LP alone, songs like “Micaela” and “3 and 1” are stellar Spanish-language boogaloos while “Pete’s Madness” is a jazzy descarga cooker.  

Acid cover

Unlike other older New York Latin music stars who rejected the boogaloo explosion of the mid-‘60s as “bubblegum,” Ray Barretto took to Latin soul with aplomb, resulting in one of the era’s most sophisticated albums. The veteran bandleader’s musical experience shines on Acid, infusing jazz touches into the hypnotic title song and “Espiritu Libre” while showing his younger peers that he too can dance with boogaloo styles on tracks like “The Soul Drummers” and “El Nuevo Barretto.”

El Malo cover

Willie Colón’s runaway success as a salsa star in the 1970s often obscures his origins as a teenage boogaloo hopeful back when he recorded his 1967 debut, El Malo. Only 16 at the time, Colón already demonstrated his potential as both trombonist and bandleader, especially on the album’s best songs like “Jazzy,” an instrumental Latin jazz gem, and “Skinny Papa,” an obvious “answer song” to Tito Puente’s 1966 boogaloo hit, “Fat Mama.” The latter also features vocals from a 21 year old Héctor Lavoe, marking the first partnership between the singer and Colón that would end up spanning over a dozen LPs. 

My Latin Soul cover

Later in life, Latin jazz percussionist Bobby Matos would express misgivings over what he saw as the over-simplicity of his debut album, My Latin Soul. With respect to artists being their own worst critic, it’s still surprising to know his ambivalence since, to most people’s ears, My Latin Soul was one of the boogaloo’s more musically impressive LPs, partly owing to Matos’s training at the feet of such masters as Tito Puente and Willie Bobo. While his straight-ahead boogaloo tracks like “Trailo A Casa (Bring It On Home” are perfectly serviceable, it’s the more jazz and mambo-inspired songs that pop on here, such as on the five minute workout “Tema De Alma Latina (Latin Soul Theme)” and especially the irresistibly catchy “Nadie Baila Como Yo (Nobody Dances Like Me).” 

Africa Boogaloo: The Latinization of West Africa cover

Africa Boogaloo highlights a marvelous homecoming of Afro-Cuban dance music back to its diasporic, sonic roots in West Africa. Filled with primarily local recordings originally cut in the 1960s and ‘70s, the comp offers a fascinating look into how groups and artists like Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Cameroon’s Charles Lembe found ways to integrate Latin music such as the son, mambo, and of course, the boogaloo, into their own regional traditions. It makes for a unique set of sounds that inspire further, deeper exploration into the vast diversity of West African musical styles.

Yo Traigo Boogaloo cover

Latin boogaloo from New York City made major inroads in South American music scenes and few artists embraced its potential more than the prolific Peruvian pianist and later salsa star, Alfredo Linares. Originally released on the Colombian MAG label, Yo Traigo Boogaloo would have been an exceptional boogaloo LP in any country, with Traigo pounding out all manners of catchy montuno riffs on the keys, backed by an ace horn section. The title track is terrific but so are “Linares Blues” and “Boogaloo En Ambiente” while the LP’s many guaguancos are top form as well. 

Wanted Dead Or Alive (Bang! Bang! Push, Push, Push) cover

Few groups benefited from the popularity of Latin boogaloo as much as the Joe Cuba Sextet. They had already recorded half a dozen LPs since the early ‘60s but when singer Jimmy Sabater came up with using “beep beep” as a call-and-response hook, the group minted one of the biggest boogaloo hits of all time with “Bang Bang.” The song became a template of sorts for the newly emerging Latin dance style, mixing together vague, non-sequitur English lyrics with an irresistible montuno piano riff. The same formula is heard on the LP’s other big single, “Push Push Push.” Wanted Dead Or Alive isn’t one note though as the Sextet also mixes in jazz mambos, boleros and cha-cha-cha songs to round out the tempos and moods.

Gypsy Woman cover

The debut LP by East Harlem’s “Afrofilipino” singer and bandleader, Gypsy Woman announced the arrival of Latin boogaloo’s premier R&B vocalist. While songs like the title track and “Fuego” were exemplary of the mid-‘60s Latin soul music craze, it was the ballad “Ordinary Guy” that would become Bataan’s most enduring hit and one of the greatest slow jams of the boogaloo era.

Next