Bobby Sanabria: Liner Notes to Spanglish Fly’s “Ay Que Boogaloo”

© Bobby Sanabria 2017

[The below is published here by permission from the author.]

Equal parts Cuban son montuno, mambo, and/or cha-cha mixed with R&B, and/or Doo Wop vocal harmony with lyrics in English–Latin Boogaloo was something that could only have been born in New York City. The city’s post-WWII Puerto Rican community had exploded, and their sons and daughters, Nuyoricans, co-existed with African Americans absorbing their culture, dances and music. Inspired by legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria’s 1963 million selling funky cha-cha-cha version of Herbie Hancock’s blues oriented tune, Watermelon Man, the seeds were planted for Latin Boogaloo’s eventual explosion in the projects of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Da’ Bronx. It was the music of neither the mamboniks, nor the jazzbos, but of the teenage Nuyorican experience of the 60s–my experience. The musicians themselves were usually teenagers. Bands like the Lateens, future salsa superstar trombonist Willie Colón, vocalist, trombonist, pianist Johnny Colón and others, had neither the experience of working in established orchestras, nor many times any musical training. But they had energy, flava, and a bicultural experience that came out in the music. By the end of 1966, Latin Boogaloo had crossed over to mainstream top 40 radio in New York and the bands themselves were headliners in the top Latin ballrooms. Their popularity became so big that established stars like Machito, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, and even The King, Tito Puente, had to acquiesce and record tunes in the style. Others like Ray Barretto embraced the music and contributed tunes in the genre that were at times both musically and lyrically sophisticated. Boogaloo’s popularity with both Puerto Rican and African American youth forged a new bond amongst these communities which were struggling with issues of identity, while at the same time reinvigorating New York’s dance music scene. But this vibrant youth movement with its accent on the commonalties between African based diaspora peoples would not last. By the end of 1968 the movement had all but died. Theories abound as to why this happened. From established band leaders complaining to booking agents, record companies ties to organized crime squelching the movement, to the rebirth of Cuban based dance music with a New York attitude that eventually became known as salsa, Latin boogaloo disappeared from the scene.

But the music survived and thrived in places like Colombia, Paris, and Tokyo, where till this day the sounds of founding boogaloo artists like Pete Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, Joe Bataan, and others are revered by hardcore collectors, dancers, and DJ’s. In the States a new wave of young bandleaders on both the East and West Coast have given new life to the music by composing new boogaloo tunes with the same energy the music exuded. But this time they’ve updated the sound with more sophisticated lyrics, rhythms, and arrangements. At the center of this movement is a Brooklyn based group called Spanglish Fly.

Spanglish Fly, Ay Que Boogaloo! cover by Victor Rendon (art) and Diego Carranza (design). Click here to listen

Led by trumpeter Jonathan Goldman, the group has a deep understanding of the music’s roots. In their opener, Bugalú Pa Mi Abuela, they namecheck the genre’s early protagonists. Mongo, Richie Ray, Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba, etc., all get a nod while the band utilizes hand claps, group vocals, breakdowns, humor–all devices that were common to the sound of early boogaloo, but with a subtle clandestine nod to modern Cuban timba. It’s obvious, this is not your Grandma’s boogaloo. Vocalist Joe Bataan’s distinctive vocals, love of R&B, and compositional talent made him a superstar back in the early days of the style. Today he still tours the world enjoying legendary status as one of the music’s founders and elders. He’s featured on a funky cha-cha-son montuno that morphs into a swing feel with scatting and a slight ode to Billy Strayhorn’s A Train. It’s just letting you know why New York Rules. If Amy Winehouse would’ve sung in a salsa band, the bolero/son, the rearrangement of You Know I’m No Good gives you a good idea what it would sound like. The band explodes on the up tempo mambo section featuring Morgan Price on the big horn ending with a lone acoustic guitar strumming in rumba flamenca style. As legendary Cuban salsa singer Justo Betancourt would say, it’s “Distinto y diferente.” Spanglish Fly’s song writing, arranging and their use of the bari sax gives them a distinct identity that separates them from other bands. “Ay Que Boogaloo” bursts with clever songwriting, such as Ojala-Inshallah. Using the Spanish word Ojala–“If God wills it,” or “hopefully,” which directly comes from the Arabic word Inshallah, “If Allah wills it,” it speaks to the ancestral/cultural ties Latinos have to Arabic culture which ruled Spain for over 800 years. It’s also a cry for a world without borders and a protest to the recent terrorism in Paris. As we say in Da’ Bronx, “It’s all that and a bag of chips,” framed in a son montuno rhythm. The 5 attack rhythmic cornerstone of the music–the clave, and its journey from Africa, to Cuba, to New York and the boogaloo–gets its props on La Clave ‘e Mi Boogaloo. Again creative arranging rules, as the band easily traverses son montuno, mambo, and funk, seamlessly demonstrating the seasoned musicianship of the players and vocalists. Boogaloo Shoes opens with the horns quoting Lionel Hampton’s 1946 jump blues swing hit, “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” It’s a funky mambo cleverly based on a musical reference from the past and a tribute to the dancers of boogaloo. If that isn’t hip, I don’t know what is. Izzy Sanabria revolutionized Latin album cover design with his forward thinking artwork which was influenced by African art, Salvador Dali and surrealism. Besides becoming the MC for the legendary Fania All Stars, he founded Latin NY, the first magazine dedicated to NYC’s salsa scene. Spanglish Fly pays tribute to him in Dizzy Izzy which features rising star, guest vocalist/actor Flaco Navaja improvising in Spanish in the uptempo mambo section after a funky cha-cha-cha/rap in English intro.Trombonist Vera Kemper evokes the NYC power trombone salsa sound in her solo and even quotes a Willie Colon lick while Izzy’s voice is cleverly interjected throughout. It’s yet another example of Spanglish Fly’s creative mashup style. Chain of Fools was a mega hit for Aretha Franklin back in 1967 and here Spanglish Fly gives it its own instrumental treatment in the style of conguero Mongo Santamaria, the featured guest from Great Britain, Snowboy, driving the song on congas. Coco Helado opens with something I’ve never heard a boogaloo band do–a rhythm known as bembé (a ritual rhythm in 6/8 meter from Yoruba tradition) that then morphs into cha-cha-cha. That said, this tribute to the “icee man” who sells flavored ices in “El Barrio,” a NYC tradition, features Rowan Ricardo Phillips in a spoken word section that would make Frank Zappa proud. Kudos to the percussion section of Arei Sekiguchi–timbales/drumset, Dylan Blanchard–congas, Ronnie Roc– bongo/cencerro, and Teddy Acosta–timbales and guiro, for their exemplary work as well as Matt Thomas–tenor sax, Rafael Gomez–bass, Vera Kemper–trombone, Kenny Bruno–piano, organ, and vocalists Paloma Muñoz and Marellaa Gonzalez, as well as their fearless leader on trumpet. The closer, How Do You Know/Cómo Sabes, opens in classic 12/8 R & B rhythm (a technique Joe Bataan frequently employed in some of his compositions) with lyrics in English, giving tenor saxophonist Thomas a chance to simmer. It morphs into a cha-cha-cha/son montuno featuring Edwin “Machuco” Estremera’s funky soneos (vocal improvs in Spanish) as a final testament to boogaloo’s bicultural roots. In the face of what some may dismiss as a musical style whose time has come and gone, Jonathan Goldman’s Spanglish Fly has reaffirmed the genre’s worth with a combination of great musicianship, clever songwriting, and slick arranging. And guess what Pilgrims? You can dance to it too!

The abbreviated liner notes, printed in Ay Que Boogaloo!

- Bobby Sanabria is a multi-Grammy nominated bandleader, drummer, percussionist, educator, and Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center. He is not related to Izzy.

© Bobby Sanabria 2017 no reproduction without permission