Arts, Culture & Media

Spanglish Fly Revives New York City's Latin Boogaloo

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Credit:

Manya Gupta

Band members of Spanglish Fly. (Photo: spanglishfly.com)

Once a month down on Avenue C in Manhattan's East Village, a crowd gathers in a low-ceilinged, dimly-lit, hard-to-find club called Nublu to pay homage to a music with deep New York city roots. In March, a guy called DJ Turmix spun records till around midnight, when the 11 members of the band Spanglish Fly took the stage.

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The bass lead into a signature tune: a version of the spiritual "Go Down Moses" spiced up with some soul and Latin flavors. They call it "Let My People Boogaloo."

The "boogaloo" being allowed here goes back not to Moses, but to the mid-1960s in Harlem, way uptown. In Harlem back then, African- and Italian-Americans lived side-by-side with recent Latino immigrants, many from Puerto Rico. This was where the music called boogaloo was born.

According to legend, the Joe Cuba Sextet was on stage one night in 1966, playing mambos and cha-chas to a largely African-American crowd. And the crowd wasn't feeling it. The group's timbale player suggested a simple, rolling figure to the piano player, the band jumped in, and the whole place started dancing. The song, "Bang Bang," spent 10 weeks on the Billboard charts, and boogaloo had arrived.

"Everything about it is inviting to everybody," Jonathan Goldman, Spanglish Fly's leader and trumpet player, says of boogaloo. He describes the music as a rich mix of Latin music with American Blues, Soul, and R&B–a fitting expression of Harlem in the 60s.

"The music is designed to invite everyone in racially, it's designed to make everyone dance, whether you know the steps or not. It's that combination of naïveté and utopianism with, I guess, the weird ingredient added of it being funky and nasty at the same time," Goldman says.

Musicians like Joe Cuba, Johnny Colón, and Pete Rodríguez rode the boogaloo wave for the next four years, playing to bigger and bigger crowds and sharing bills with the likes of The Temptations, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye.

While it was gathering fans outside of Spanish Harlem, the music was also getting younger Latinos into Latin music.

"Latin boogaloo is essentially the bridge," says Mathew Ramirez Warren, a journalist who's putting the finishing on a documentary about boogaloo called "We Like it Like that."

"Whereas a lot of them viewed mambo as their parents' music, these kids at the time needed a sound that reflected their experience, and that's what boogaloo was."

Of course the music had its detractors, too. "It met a lot of resistance by the purists, which new things normally do," says Harvey Averne. Averne was deep into the Latin music scene in the 60s and 70s, as a musician and as a producer on some seminal boogaloo and salsa albums. He says that boogaloo's accessibility–its simple lyrics and contagious rhythm–turned off a lot of Latin music aficionados.

This resistance was one of several factors that blew boogaloo off the airwaves and out of the dancehalls in the early '70s.

The members of Spanglish Fly are part of a group of people bringing it back. They're updating it some, too. The group has a female lead singer, which was uncommon back in the day. So, too, was having as many original songs as the band has.

They have two recent singles that deal with the highs and lows of life in New York City. One, called "Me Gusta Mi Bicicleta," conjures the joy of riding a bicycle through New York's boroughs. The other, "The Po-Po," describes a few unfortunate run-ins with police.

For his part, Harvey Averne is pretty excited to see the sounds of the old days making a comeback. He's even signed on to produce some Spanglish Fly sessions. And he notes, with some irony, that the new interest in boogaloo being generated by Spanglish Fly and others might drive people to discover other, more "pure" styles of Latin music.

"Once you bring that young generation back into the music, via boogaloo even, then they will start to wonder and go deeper. So the thing that the purists denied might be their savior in the end. That is poetic justice."

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