More this week on the Latin music scene of post-War California, a scene that I find endlessly fascinating and frustratingly undocumented.
Boogaloo was a mid-‘60s phenomenon original to New York City’s Spanish Harlem, a juiced-up mash of popular Latin dance styles like mambo and guajira, infused with R&B; and a bilingual Nuyorican identity. It was ephemeral, but as a style it attained a degree of national popularity beyond the Five Boroughs; Joe Cuba (“Bang Bang”) and Ray Barretto (“El Watusi”) sold hundreds of thousands of records.
The boogaloo’s popularity, in addition to its Latin roots and bilinguality, caught the attention of young musicians, Puerto Rican or otherwise, in Spanish-speaking communities beyond New York City, though. There are ‘60s boogaloo records from Miami. There are ’60s boogaloo records, albeit more infrequent, from Chicago, Albuquerque, Tucson and various cities in Texas, too. These were records made by local Latino groups who seized on the then-hip boogaloo, adding it to their live repertoires and stamping it in the process with a distinct musical and cultural pedigree. (The fairly rare boogaloos from the Southwest often have identifiable Tejano-sounding horn lines, for instance.)
Fed by the African- and Mexican-American communities of Los Angeles, as well as the loose-knit world of California Latin and Latin jazz, the boogaloo acquired its own polyglot tang after arriving on the West Coast. You could dance to it, but it was jazzy, too – and more relaxed than its hot-headed older brother from New York City. West Coast boogaloo was a profoundly Pacific creature.
1. Brown Sugar, Batakum (Mares)
That itchy-twitchy feeling in your toes. “Batakum” starts by beckoning us to the dance floor, thus observing one of the boogaloo’s guiding edicts.
Brown Sugar never quite unleash it all, however, the way their New York City counterparts might have done with their blaring trombone lines and crashing, percussive piano chords. Brown Sugar are Los Angeles instead. They’re air-conditioned. They’re Bob Barker. Unflappable, good with the ladies.
The tiny Mares label seems to have been a side project for the obscure Los Angeles-based pianist Vladimir Vassilieff – or someone fanatically devoted to his compositions. Both “Batakum” and the other record on Mares Records that I know of (Ray Medina and the New Latin Breed’s “Head’s Head”) are compositions by Vassilieff. Vassilieff was the Belgian-borne mastermind behind the Aquarians, who in turn released Jungle Grass, one of the definitive albums of ‘60s West Coast Latin jazz.
I’d guess “Batakum” was released around 1968. The group’s name and this selection’s flipside – the brown-eyed soul “In a Moment” – suggest that Brown Sugar hailed from the Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles.
2. Hayward Lee and the Marauders, Oogaloo (The Scamm Sound)
“Oogaloo” follows the spirit of Latin boogaloo more than its letter. The basic vamping rhythm is there, but there’s no actual Latin percussion on this, no timbales or conga drums.
And, sure, it may have been rehearsed and recorded in two takes. Sure, it almost stalls under the weight of its own tastefulness. But “Oogaloo” was the B-side of the record, so give it a break. It makes sense, actually: the B-side was your wildcard, a place, say, to knock out your jazzy interpretation of some new Latin dance you’d heard across town. A place to channel your inner Spanish Harlem without losing that sense of West Coast composure.
The A-side of this record is a funky discotheque soul version of Billy Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” with R&B singer Hayward Lee assuming a more direct role in the proceedings. This 45, released around 1967, was one of only a few records on Hollywood’s brief-lived Scamm Sound label.
3. Chuy Castro and His Orchestra, Swahili Baby (Baronet)
More unknown Los Angelinos, Chuy Castro and co. go native in their own way on “Swahili Baby.” Which is not an apology, just an explanation: contending with the boogaloo means contending with a novelty factor inherent to the era’s long lineage of disposable dance crazes and disposable lyrics.
It’s jazzy, and again there’s that vague sense of nonchalance. Of this week’s selections, though, “Swahili Baby” bears the most resemblance to the classic New York City boogaloo sound. Like Eddie Palmieri (“African Twist”), Orquesta Olivieri (“African Guajira”), Joey Pastrana (“Afro Azul”), or the Latinaires (“Afro-Shingaling”), Castro makes that hip connection between the boogaloo and Africa, too. Castro succeeds where his Nuyorican contemporaries don’t, however, with the rarest of all trifectas: a surfing reference. Helloooo, California.
“Swahili Baby” was likely recorded around ’65 or ’66. Baronet was a Los Angeles label known for its ‘60s R&B and soul releases.