Music has always told a version of history not quite captured by the history books. It is a universal language with the ability to reflect social attitudes and environments in a way no other medium can achieve. This is true for every genre of music throughout history, as each one – every individual song within each genre, in fact – was born from a specific set of environmental factors that can be identified through the music. For these reasons music offers a valuable historical perspective that focuses on the human experience of a given event or time period through a unique anthropological lens. Boogaloo music of the 1960s was a perfect example of this phenomenon.
From its very conception, boogaloo music was a response to the musical status quo and thus reflected the social attitudes of the era as well as the musical ones. Boogaloo originated in New York City and ultimately remained centralized in the streets of Harlem for the duration of its short but exhilarating life span. New York City at this time, specifically Harlem, was bursting with Latino (and other) immigrants from Puerto Rico and Cuba hoping for a better life in America. These immigrants and their children faced the usual problems of neglect and alienation from mainstream society, leading them to create their own version of home in the Harlem streets.
These streets were riddled with gang violence and racial tensions even between the different minority groups that resided there. There were inter-ethnic tensions between Puerto Ricans and other Latinos due to the hierarchies assigned to them by white society. Cubans in particular were the “superior” breed of Latino according to white culture mainly due to the politics of the era. Cuba was seen as a land of leisure, an accessible tropic where alcohol remained legal during the American prohibition, an acceptable balance of exotic, but not too much.
For this reason Cubans, their culture, and their music had the most commercial success of any Latinos at the time. Puerto Ricans had no such luck, and often found themselves overshadowed by their Cuban peers. Yet, even so, these same Puerto Ricans felt more attached to their home in New York than anywhere else. In the words of the Puerto Rican-American writer and activist Felipe Luciano, “I walk these streets. I own this motherfucker. This is mine.” This sentiment was shared by the majority of his peers, many of whom were seeking something, anything, to connect them to their community.
With racial tensions running high and opportunities limited for immigrants and their families, many young Puerto Ricans turned to music as an outlet. Youths in the city were exposed to a variety of musical influences, from their parents’ traditional Latin music to mainstream American music such as doo-wop, Motown, jazz, and blues. They also encountered organic Afro-Caribbean beats from their neighbors in Harlem. Yet with all these genres and styles to choose from, Puerto Rican youths still did not feel connected to or represented by any of them. It was all “somebody else’s” music, not theirs. Thus began the birth of boogaloo.
Boogaloo music, above anything else, was born out of a yearning for identity, for something not simply borrowed to call their own. This attempt at creating their place in society was an act of rebellion in itself in the environment of conformist white America at the time, as were the exotic sound and lifestyle the music produced. It was a fusion of the plethora of musical influences present in Harlem, crossed with a sense of purpose and a genuine passion that was not rooted in commercial success, but rather in the experience of the music. All of these factors made boogaloo entirely unique and gave it importance that reached far beyond the music.
The music itself was everything young Puerto Ricans were missing in the mainstream hits. It was upbeat, percussive and fun, but also boisterous, rowdy, raucous and dripping in male swagger. Its lyrical themes included dancing, partying, drugs, love, sex, and machismo. The lyrics were often in both English and Spanish, something the American-born children of first generation Puerto Rican immigrants could relate to. It took elements of traditional Latin music and crossed them with jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean sounds. It was almost entirely informal, with many boogaloo musicians never receiving any musical education and frankly never needing to. It was performed on street corners and stoops rather than in recording studios, featuring household objects and homemade instruments. “To young Puerto Ricans in New York, this [was] the real Latin music, a music that came out of their experience,” Vince Aletti writes in his 1972 article Some Like It Hot.
When Joe Bataan’s album Gypsy Woman was released in 1967, it changed everything. Bataan, a former hoodlum with gang affiliations, had created something beautiful, funky, danceable, and carefree; an ultimate declaration of freedom and unabashed delight. “I don’t really believe you need a musical education in order to be an accomplished musician or reach people,” Bataan declared in a 1971 article by Felipe Luciano. “It comes from the heart.”Bataan and his musical peers, like the Joe Cuba Sextet, Pete Rodriguez, Johnny Colón, Ray Barretto, and many more, captured and enshrined the spirit and purpose of boogaloo music. It was, at its roots, by the people and for the people, a concept that had never before existed for New York Puerto Ricans.
This fusion of old and new ideas at once delighted and unsettled its audiences. The young Puerto Ricans in Harlem were elated. They finally had music that moved them: emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Dancing was a central aspect to boogaloo music and what became boogaloo culture. “The dancers are their own music….These days the youngbloods have made it into a test of Latino hipness: who can turn the girl the most and which couple has the most intricate steps,” Luciano writes in his article The Song of Joe B. Boogaloo music became an outlet of every kind: for the musicians, pouring their hearts and souls into their instruments and pioneering a brand new sound, and simultaneously for their audience, the non-musician Puerto Ricans who finally had music to relate to, and finally could let loose in an environment where they felt welcome and truly part of it.
Naturally, this elation was met with contempt from traditional Latin musicians and other musicians that had already reached a certain level of recognition and prestige. To them, boogaloo was an abomination: a bastardization of the traditional sounds they had brought from their homeland to preserve their heritage. Older musical puritans saw no need to combine multiple musical influences. Even worse, they felt threatened. They had spent their lives honing their traditional sound, and now the youth was watering it down with American sounds – and people loved it. Established musicians saw their record sales declining as boogaloo gained popularity and found themselves having to compete, or even dabble in boogaloo themselves, to stay relevant.
It was this irreconcilable rift between the old and the new that ultimately led to boogaloo’s demise. Though boogaloo music and culture was taking Harlem’s youth by storm, it had yet to breach wider audiences and remained anchored in the local culture that both formed it and formed around it. Further, it was the established musicians, their record labels and their agents that had the influence and thus the upper hand in the music industry. In what artists like the prolific Johnny Colón called an “assassination,” record companies such as Fania Records crafted a conspiracy to keep boogaloo off the airwaves and out of the hands and ears of anymore impressionable youths, instead bringing back the tipico sounds of Latin music and successfully ending the regime of boogaloo in an abrupt fashion. The fact that this was necessary speaks volumes about the power boogaloo held in the hearts of those who connected with it – and how big boogaloo was destined to become.
To say the death of boogaloo was a shame would be a gross understatement. Boogaloo in many ways defined a generation, created an identity for Puerto Ricans living in New York City, and opened up a world of musical possibilities. Boogaloo alone paved the way to the commercial success of Latino music in America, for the salsa and the other genres that succeeded it. As Johnny Colón put it, “The boogaloo should have gone on to the next, most logical progression of the music, whatever that would have turned into. And it didn’t.” Though boogaloo may have died a violent death, the life it ignited in the hearts of so many Latinos will never fade. The passion remains as it always did, still tangible in how the people involved still talk about it today. In this way, and within the music that followed it, the spirit of boogaloo will live on forever.