"The Boogaloo Never Died": How the Quintessential Music of 1960s New York Is Making a Comeback
Boogaloo used to be the sound of New York City, and then it disappeared from the airwaves. Now, a new generation of enthusiasts are helping the original stars bring it back.
Boogaloo star Joe Bataan today, photo courtesy of Joe Bataan
Deep in Alphabet City, two blocks from the East River and kitty-corner to the Nuyorican Poets Café, you can hear the faint sounds of trumpets and trombones, maybe even the resonant slap of a conga coming from inside a tiny bar called Nublu. On the other side of Nublu’s thick door, something that sounds like a mix of salsa and Motown explodes and hangs in the already thick air. The boogaloo party is at full tilt.
If you can make it through the narrow space and past dancing couples, a few of whom are dripping with passion and sweat as they flirt with their partners in a series of impossibly timed steps, you might be able to catch a glimpse of a colorful label bearing the name of Joe Cuba, Tito Rodriguez, or Joe Bataan whirling around at 45 RPM. Behind the decks is DJ Turmix, a Barcelona native in love with this distinctly New York sound. Turmix may be New York City’s biggest present day boogaloo proponent, and his monthly party is one of the few places where you can hear these classic records from the barrios of Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. Yet the genre, for a long time suppressed and overlooked, has recently made something of a comeback.
Boogaloo and Latin soul were musical representations of New York’s heartbeat in the early-to-mid 60s, Turmix says. Puerto Rican, Cuban, and black teens who didn’t relate to the music their mostly immigrant parents listened to mixed what they heard on the radio—soul, R&B, cha cha, boleros—into an Afro-Latin rhythm. Upbeat boogaloo and the more diverse, romantic Latin soul were revolutionary, socially conscious, and dancefloor-ready. The music absolutely took over the northern boroughs’ youth culture, which was often plagued by gangs, poverty, and racism that were the prelude to New York City’s near bankruptcy in 1975.
DJ Turmix's boogaloo party at Nublu, photo courtesy of DJ Turmix
“The boogaloo and way we think of it existed far longer than we remember. It’s a cha cha beat. Smokey Robinson was doing it when he [produced] ‘My Girl,’” says Joe Bataan, the 72-year-old King of Latin Soul, who produced seven albums during the boogaloo/Latin soul era before moving onto “salsoul” and funk. “We just had to change the lyrics and tune, and then it had a universal appeal. It’s still that cha cha beat, still that soulful feeling that makes you want to get up and dance. It’s a sort of song that makes you want to participate.”
You’ve probably heard boogaloo before, most likely in movies. Pete Rodriguez’s loungey, cha cha-inspired radio hit “I Like It Like That” appeared in Jon Favreau’s ode to food trucks, Chef, and Ru Paul gets down to “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia)” by the Joe Cuba Sextet in the Spike Lee movie Crooklyn.
Despite these popular appearances, though, this New York sound has largely faded back into its home boroughs, mostly due to a systematic destruction by record labels and promoters in the early 1970s. But grassroots efforts to revive the boogaloo and Latin soul are beginning to pay off, and the past five years have been huge in comparison to the silence of the past 40.
Joe Bataan has been a New York SummerStage staple for years and will headline a free boogaloo celebration at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 6, featuring legendary pianist Richie Ray, modern boogaloo group Ray Lugo and The Boogaloo Destroyers, and Pete Rodriguez, in one of his first performances in 40 years. On August 5, Lincoln Center will host a screening of We Like It Like That! The Story of Latin Boogaloo, an independent documentary chronicling the rise, fall, and renaissance of the genre.
“Boogaloo is the quintessential American experience. It’s youths trying to make it, it’s immigrant influence, it’s musical development,” says multi-instrumentalist Johnny Colon, whose 1967 album Boogaloo Blues contained the definitive boogaloo hit of the same name. “The boogaloo never died. The energy, the name was in the air.”
Colon takes all his meetings at the Chelsea Mews Diner on the Upper East Side. Seated at a booth between septuagenarians and their middle-aged companions, he orders a waffle with two sausages and rips open five small packets of butter. Donning a bright blue and green Hawaiian shirt to match the humid weather outside, Colon is a regular and comfortable here, but he’s quick to mention that he misses his long time home in Spanish Harlem.
It was there that he taught himself ukulele, piano, and learned trombone—his signature instrument on Boogaloo Blues—and where he shirked the traditional route of Latin musicians by becoming a bandleader in his early 20s. Colon was a quiet, respectful kid who, like his contemporaries, grew up listening to Latin music, jazz, and pop singers like Frank Sinatra. He hated doo wop, which many of his contemporaries were singing on street corners before boogaloo hit, but he found commonality in his disinterest of contemporary acts like Tito Puente or Perez Prado, who played boogaloos but in a traditional, technical fashion.
Puente and others weren’t working much by the early 60s, and clubs were suffering, Colon remembers. The people who saw Latin legends perform in the 1940s now had families and jobs. Girls were into The Beatles, boys sang doo wop, and young kids who wanted to “go out and get good” didn’t have music that spoke to them. Nor did the style reflect the diverse population of New York’s working class neighborhoods, where Cuban, Puerto Rican, black, and Filipino kids mixed.
“The boogaloo opened up the era for everybody,” Colon says. “['Boogaloo Blues'] was a bridge. The lyrics were in English, it had jazz style phrasing, and the piano and horn arrangements were on fire. It was also representative of the environment. Puente, Cuba, they grew up in a different environment.” Additionally, “Boogaloo Blues” had a hypnotic hook with “LSD got a hold on me… one-two-three I feel so free”—an anthem for a drug-fueled era that Colon says actually meant “love, strong, dynamic.”
Colon gets a twinkle in his eye as he scats and taps on the table describing early boogaloo hits like 1963’s “Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto's “El Watusi.” What differentiated those boogaloos from Colon, Bataan, and their contemporaries was a youthful passion (Bataan was 25 when his first record came out, but his band was made of 11 and 12 year olds; Willie Colón was 17 when his first record, El Malo, was released) and, often, lack of technical proficiency. Many boogaloo and Latin soul records were made for friends and family, and the excitement comes through on the recordings. You could hear neighborhood voices in the music—Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang” became a dancefloor crusher that blended ecstatic voices in a simple chorus made for easy swaying in hot clubs. The moody instrumental “Acid” by Ray Barretto (who would later play conga on sessions with the BeeGees and the Rolling Stones) was a scene setter also fit for dancing, but with heavy jazz influence.
“These guys were like the punk rock version of Latin music; they broke all the rules,” says We Like It Like That director Mathew Ramirez Warren, adding that the dance itself was a freestyle unlike traditional Latin music. “While you don’t think of boogaloo as political, it was part of that era. It was defiant music—defying the music of their elders while paying respect to it. It gave the youth a sense of identity and empowerment.”
An article on boogaloo in Latin NY magazine, circa 1968
Bataan manages to capture joy, fear, and sorrow on 1968’s Riot! Where songs like “It’s A Good Feeling (El Avion)” bring a chorus of happy voices, cymbals, and horns together on a seven-minute ode to the pleasures of good tunes. You can almost see Bataan at a young, strong-jawed man, leaning off a fire escape on a cool evening penning “What Good Is A Castle,” where he questions “What good is a castle / Way high upon a hill / If you're chained down and you're crippled / And you're six stories high / What good is a playground / Full of lovers beneath your window pane / If every time you watch them / It starts to rain.”
Boogaloo also revived the traditional music young musicians had rebelled against. Many incorporated guaranias, boleros, and songs with a cha cha beat into their sets—but in a hipper way.
The boogaloo got big, really big. It flooded out of the projects, from radios, into dancehalls and basements, and it took flight to Panama and Colombia. Many of the artists signed to the legendary Fania Records, which distributed worldwide and in later years created the Fania All-Stars. Afro-Filipino Bataan, who wasn’t Latino, learned Spanish to sing more songs; he left the street life where he briefly led Puerto Rican gang the Dragons. Colon recorded multiple records and founded the East Harlem Music School in 1968. Artists from this era would be featured in the 1972 documentary Our Latin Thing, which discusses the birth of salsa and the Nuyorican community; a year later many boogaloo artists would perform at Yankee Stadium to more than 50,000 people.
Homemade poster by promoter “El Gran Frederico,” from Latin NY magazine,1968
Despite contracts that didn’t pay and royalties that would never come, things were groovy for the boys and girls from the barrio. Old school Latin artists, however—as well as the promoters that hyped them, the record companies that sold them, and the mob bosses who puppeteered the show—were not pleased by dwindling record and ticket sales in their realm. The lot of them, including boogaloo and Latin soul champion Fania, which was also under mob influence, systematically decided to “assassinate the boogaloo,” as Colon told Warren in a 2010 Wax Poetics article, to make way for more traditional sounds and salsa in 1970. While label owners and radio DJs wouldn’t admit to shady dealings outright, boogaloo artists felt cheated and unsupported. Some decided to cut ties with major labels that were more interested in profit or pushing a particular sound.
“I was first artist to rebel against Fania Records, the first to leave the label at the height of my career,” Bataan says with twinge of resentment. “I was threatened; they said that they’d destroy me, that they’d take my records off the radio. You couldn’t hear a Joe Bataan record on the radio for the next two to three years after being the number one airplay artist on the radio in New York.”
Colon was also jerked around by a syndicate of promoters led by mobbed-up record exec Morris Levy, who withheld royalties, song ownership, and performance dates. At one point, a monstrously tall Mafia enforcer came into the recording studio and handed Colon a business card with a picture of the enforcer lying in a coffin: a “friendly” reminder of what could happen if the young musician stepped out of line. Colon says he still hasn’t seen money from Boogaloo Blues, which should have made him a multi-millionaire. Colon recorded a few more albums but largely left the business to focus on his school; Pete Rodriguez “completely detached” from the music business and focused on his growing family; Bataan used the injustice to propel himself further.
“They tried to destroy my career because I wouldn’t conform to their ways,” he says. “They believed a musician should stay in their place; we shouldn’t know about publishing, about sales, it was baloney. I think that was the best move. Even though I suffered for a while it allowed me to become international because I had one of biggest hits in the world with [1980’s] ‘Rap-O Clap-O’…that’s what started me on my quest to become an artist of world music.”
While Bataan traveled the world fronting his SalSoul label, his and Colon’s boogaloo records percolated, landing in Colombia, Germany, and Japan. Hip-hop heads and record collectors digging in crates discovered the long-lost vinyl and developed a love for the music. In recent years, it’s once again found its footing. Colombia has had its own, faster version of the boogaloo for the last 15 years, and other Latin boogaloo bands have popped up across the globe: Setenta brings boogaloo with an Afro-Caribbean flair to Paris, Japan’s Charlee Miyake & The Latin Swingers do a quicker, ska-tinged version of Bataan’s “Subway Joe,” and Los Angeles’ Boogaloo Assassins tear up salsa floors with a hip shakin’ version of “No No No” alongside Joe Cuba and Willie Colón covers.
Unfortunately, the home of the boogaloo wasn’t as happening for many years.
“It was a little frustrating because the music that I really love, I didn’t see any parties focused on this music,” Turmix says of his arrival to New York in 2008. “All the living legends stopped playing boogaloo and didn’t have many opportunities to play in New York City because there were no clubs focused on [Latin soul or boogaloo]. The Latin audience was more focused on merengue, bachata, salsa.”
Johnny Colon's Boogaloo Blues
Bataan had played to large audiences in Paris, Colombia, and Las Vegas, but there weren’t the same opportunities to perform locally. “In the Latin field, there’s always been a boom and a lull,” Colon says, adding that he only performs when he really wants to these days. Turmix, though, continued to connect with performers, record collectors, and promoters before starting the boogaloo party at Nublu in 2011. He’ll occasionally have performers do a live set at the dance.
That same year, in what Turmix calls “the day boogaloo came back to the city,” Colon and Bataan performed to a packed crowd at SummerStage in Central Park. The weather was fine, the bands were on, and the energy brought people back to their youth. Bataan bounced around on stage, powering through hits like 1966’s “Gypsy Woman,” and the crowd grooved along to Colon’s arrangements. The audience was looking right back at their past, Bataan says.
“We blew it up! We had no idea what would happen and then, when we saw the turnout, we saw it could be historical. It was like New York coming back to Central Park to get a taste of their childhood, and see what was in store for their future. People talked about it for a year,” Bataan says.
Around the same time, musicians from New York’s Latin, soul, and Afrobeat scenes started forming funk and soul bands with a Latin tone, and a few even focused on boogaloo. The music is particularly freeing for singer Erica Ramos, a California native who fronts the 11-piece Fulaso (short for funky Latin soul) and sang for Spanglish Fly.
“It sort of embodied the spirit of liberation in the 60s. It’s not salsa, you don’t have to dance a certain way,” she says. “In New York City specifically, you get so trapped in the day to day grind, to be able to get out and just freely shake your body convulsively in this moment, space and time where everyone is letting their soul go—it’s a special cathartic community experience.”
Singer Ray Lugo, whose five-year-old band The Boogaloo Destroyers will open for Bataan and Rodriguez on August 6, says the renaissance of soul music and new technologies have created a crucial time for Latin soul and the boogaloo. “Sharon Jones and Lee Fields have brought classic American soul to the forefront, and we’re feeling the aftershock. There’s a treasure of music being discovered right here in our backyard.”
These new bands face many of the same challenges as their boogaloo forefathers: a lack of places to play, little pay, and the struggles of keeping ten or more musicians happy. While you can hear boogaloo or Latin soul at Nublu or Le Poisson Rouge in the Village (formerly Village Gate, where Colon played back in the day), Lugo says high rents have led club managers to prefer DJs or more mainstream music.
Ray Lugo and the Boogaloo Destroyers, photo courtesy of Ray Lugo
“There are venue owners who in their heart of hearts are really fighting to bring quality music, but their rents are astronomical,” he says. “The reality is if you’re a soul band and trying to gig in New York the way you’re treated is no longer as an art but a commodity. The economics is people just need to make their money so they’re scared to book a new sound or brand new band.”
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Warren’s five-year labor of love explores some of these issues. His 80-minute film features Bataan, Colon, Ricardo Ray, Tito Ramos, and others backed by a soundtrack of more than 30 boogaloo and Latin soul hits, as well as archival footage. Warren wants the boogaloo to be seen in the canon of popular American music, where Latinos are routinely left out or othered.
We Like It Like That! debuted at South By Southwest this year and will screen in Bogotá, Colombia, LA, London, and Barcelona in the coming months. “My hope is that the film contributes to this growing movement. The boogaloo revival is the catalyst for some of these artists to go out there and perform or get recognized,” Warren says.
The Lincoln Center boogaloo celebration will undoubtedly bring renewed interest to what some have called a Latin soul renaissance. Bataan hopes the family-friendly event will encourage young people to dive into the boogaloo’s musical history and create their own sound.
“All you need is one kid in the audience who’s a Bruno Mars that says ‘Oh man I want to be like Joe Bataan and I’m gonna write this,’” Bataan says.
Although Colon says he’s shocked by the scope of the boogaloo renaissance, he’s not surprised that the beat came back.
“I think there’s a major sense of curiosity now because there’s a wonderful space of possibility, of opportunity,” he says, poking at his waffle. “They couldn’t kill something that was really intended to develop. They put the brakes on it and now someone is taking their foot off. It’s driving itself.”
Jessica Lipsky is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.