Joe Cuba: El Alcalde del Barrio

[18 April 2010]

By George de Stefano

Bigger Than Boogaloo

Joe Cuba had “crossover dreams” long before another ambitious Latin musician, Panamanian singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, starred in a 1985 film by that name. Cuba, born Gilberto Navarro in 1931 to Puerto Rican parents, was a conga player and bandleader from East Harlem, aka “El Barrio”, who, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, set out to conquer non-Latin audiences. He succeeded, with records that had English lyrics and doo-wop vocal harmonies. Then, in the mid-‘60s, his monster hits “Bang Bang” and “El Pito” defined a hybrid genre called “boogaloo” or “Latin bugalú”.

Cuba, who died last year, fused Cuban son montuno and rhythm and blues, creating a funky, only-in-New York sound that connected powerfully with Latinos and African Americans. But the birth of boogaloo was a happy accident. In 1964, the Joe Cuba Sextet was playing a gig at the Gardens Club, a black venue in Manhattan, but the dancers weren’t digging the group’s Cuban-based sound. So to get folks on the dance floor, timbales player and vocalist Jimmy Sabater came up with a simple and catchy vamp, and the musicians improvised a number around it. It went over so well that the next day Cuba and the band crafted an arrangement, and soon afterwards committed “Bang Bang” to vinyl.

What they came up with was the sound of a raucous block party in el barrio – the voices of kids chanting “Bang! Bang!” stood out in the mix, and the track was recorded with an overhead boom-operated mic to create a “live” ambiance. But the words announced that this was a mixed party. Besides “cuchifritos” and “lechón”, there was soul food on the menu—“cornbread, hog maw and chitterlings”. The Latin-African American fusion clicked; Latino and black record-buyers, and also whites, made “Bang Bang” a million-seller. Soon record labels, and other Latin artists, were jumping on the boogaloo bandwagon.

“El Pito”, Cuba’s 1966 hit adapted from the Dizzy Gillespie-Chano Pozo composition, “Manteca”, became famous its four-note whistle (“pito” is Spanish for “whistle”) but especially for its chorus, “I’ll never go back to Georgia”, which had special resonance for blacks given that the Peach State then was one of the most racially-segregated in the nation. 

El Alcalde del Barrio, the new compilation of Cuba’s recordings for the Mardi Gras, Seeco, Tico, and Fania labels, includes those two milestones. But the 34 tracks,  selected by producer Bobby Marin from recordings made between 1956 and 1979, prove that Joe Cuba was about a lot more than boogaloo, a short-lived trend that was pretty much passé by 1969. (Arguments over “who killed boogaloo” variously blame recording industry executives, hostile DJs and promoters, and old-guard Latin bandleaders envious of the music’s popularity.)

In fact, compared to the best material on El Alcalde, the boogaloo sounds pretty insubstantial. It’s undeniably infectious and fun, easy to dance to (much easier than most polyrhythmic Latin dance music) and historically significant given its cross-cultural provenance and appeal. But its critics, including the great pianist, composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, who dismissed boogaloo as “Latin bubblegum,” had a point.

The compilation’s top tracks are the mambos, boleros, cha cha chas, pachangas, and guaguancós. The Joe Cuba Sextet performed this tipica material differently from most Latin bands at the time. Early on, Cuba used trumpets, as heard on three numbers from 1956, “Joe Cuba’s Mambo”, “Swinging Mambo”, and “Pregón Cha Cha”. But he dropped the brass pretty quickly, replacing it with vibraphones. Tommy Berrios was the sextet’s original vibist; after his death Louie Ramirez took his place. The band swung like mad – check the six-minute tour de force “Y Joe Cuba Ya Llegó”—but the vibes added a touch of jazzy cool.

The Joe Cuba Sextet comprised Berrios/Ramirez, Cuba on congas, pianist Nick Jimenez, arranger/bassist Jules Cordero, vocalist Willie Torres, and Jimmy Sabater on timbales and vocals. When Torres left the band, Cuba hired Cheo Feliciano, one of the greatest Latin romantic singers and a leading figure in 70s salsa. (He stayed only for a year, though, before Torres returned.) Feliciano’s virile baritone seduces on ballads like “Como Ríen” and “Aunque Tú”, but he’s also a terrific rhythm singer, as on “A las Seis” and “Bochinchosa”, the latter a driving guaguancó and one of the compilation’s highlights. Sabater and Torres were no slouches, either. Sabater’s suave crooning is irresistible, in both English (“To Be with You”) and Spanish (“Los Dos”). Torres shines on several tracks, especially the cha cha cha “Mujer Divina”.

Joe Cuba was a musical innovator and a savvy entertainer whose sound, though rooted in Cuba and Puerto Rico, couldn’t have come from anywhere but New York. It specifically was a Nuyorican sound – Latin, but inclusive of other idioms Cuba and his musicians heard and loved – R&B, rock, and jazz. El Alcalde del Barrio is a fitting tribute to Cuba, one that accurately represents the quality and variety of his vibrant music.

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