Although I confess to not having been a fan of boogaloo, a hybrid of Latin and soul music that was popular in the late 60s, I absolutely adored “We Like It Like That”, a new documentary that is available now on ITunes and VOD.
Director Matthew Ramirez Warren, who has written for the NY Times and NBC, began work on the film in 2010. The six years he devoted to making “We Like It Like That” were well-spent since it is a tour de force of musicology and social history, topped off by captivating interviews with musicians who played in this style. A year after the project started, Warren gave an interview to Rubber City Review where he explained how he got turned on to the music:
Unfortunately, I missed the boogaloo craze by quite a few years, I am 29 years old. Though I was exposed to Latin music growing up, I didn’t really discover boogaloo till about 10 years ago when I started DJing and collecting records. I would find these boogaloo records in used record stores and flea markets and they just blew my mind because they were so New York. I wanted to know more about them.
Boogaloo is essentially a hybrid of Afro-Cuban and soul music that frequently used English instead of Spanish lyrics. The title of the film is an adaptation of one of the monster hits “I Like It Like That”, which was written for the Pete Rodriguez band in 1967. Rodriguez, along with Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, and other practitioners of the style now mostly in their seventies, is interviewed about how he began performing in the style. In each interview, the musicians go into considerable detail about how the harmony and rhythm departed from Latin music tradition, as well as singing or playing instruments to illustrate their points. It is the Latin music equivalent to listening to a Leonard Bernstein lecture on Mozart.
In the mid-60s Puerto Rican youth had lost interest in the music their parents danced to. Instead of playing Tito Puente, Machito or Tito Rodriguez records, they were into Motown or rock and roll. This reminded me of the time when I was good friends of a young programmer who had come to the USA from Cuba with his father, who had been a sergeant in Batista’s army. When we used to have lunch together when we were consultants at Nynex in the 1980s, we agreed to disagree on politics. Years later when he switched his major from computer science to anthropology at CCNY, he changed his mind considerably about Cuba under the impact of professors who, as he put it, were saying the same things as me.
We also disagreed about music but not so intensely. He was a fan of Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and INXS, as were most of his friends in Washington Heights who were all Latinos like him. At the time I was passionate about Afro-Cuban music and had amassed a considerable collection of records on the Egrem label, a Cuban company that had somehow managed to find a distributor in Queens. When he came over to hang out, I began to play Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros for him. He became hooked and started buying Egrem records himself. One day he told me that when his father heard a Benny Moré being played on his stereo, he came in with a big smile on his face. That, he said, was the band that he and his wife used to dance to at outdoor concerts.
Afro-Cuban music has had an ability to influence other styles over the decades as well as to be influenced as well. Much of modern African popular music has been influenced by Afro-Cuban music, the result of sailors on cargo ships playing their records in cities like Brazzaville and Dakar when they were on shore leave. Meanwhile, jazz and other styles have influenced salsa. If you’ve ever heard Eddie Palmieri, you’ll be struck by his obvious debt to McCoy Tyner.
Boogaloo was above all the style that echoed the culture of East Harlem, a neighborhood just ten blocks north of me. As Johnny Colon and other boogaloo veterans stroll along its streets, they convey the spirit of the times when Puerto Rican youth embraced a type of music that their parents might have hated. As one musician puts it, that is the key to any music’s success among teens. If your parents hated it, you loved it whether it was Elvis Presley or Joe Cuba.
Boogaloo became so pervasive that more traditional musicians were compelled by the marketplace to make boogaloo records, including Eddie Palmieri, arguably the greatest Latin musician who ever lived, and Larry Harlow—a Jew who grew up adoring Afro-Cuban music, so much so that he lived in Cuba for two years studying under the masters. He, like Palmieri, did not care for the music, but despite that made records that some consider boogaloo masterpieces.
Toward the end of the film, we see Johnny Colon and Joe Bataan performing before adoring crowds in Central Park. Evidently, boogaloo is making a comeback largely as a result of young DJ’s playing classic records in trendy nightclubs. I doubt that I will be buying any of the new CD’s made by young musicians carrying on in this tradition but I totally recommend “We Like It Like That”, a film that celebrates the genre and gives it is proper due.