New York's Latin music giant Joe Cuba died Sunday at age 78, after a long illness. As prolific as he was influential, Cuba was one of the main pioneers of the Latin soul movement in the 1960s, which included the popular boogaloo craze, and then became an elder in the salsa scene during the 1970s and beyond.
courtesy of the artist
The bandleader Joe Cuba, center, died Sunday.
courtesy of the artist
Born Gilberto Calderon in New York in 1931, and originally a conguero, Cuba and his band were part of a pivotal generation of NY-raised Puerto Rican Americans (Nuyoricans) who helped define the city's Latin music styles following the mambo-era of the 1960s. Here's a selection of some of Cuba's key songs over those years.
"Bang Bang" wasn't the first Latin boogaloo song, but its success in 1966 all but officially inaugurated the boogaloo era -- first in New York, then across the greater Afro-Cuban music world. The words to "Bang Bang" are largely nonsensical, a mix of Nuyorican food items ("lechon! lechon!") and the shouts on the chorus ("beep beep! aaaaaah!"), but the whole package proved irresistible. Latin, black and white audiences across America bought more than a million copies of the single, and the song became a standard of sorts, not just among other Latin musicians, but also among American jazz artists such as Les McCann and David Sanborn.
El Pito (I'll Never Go Back To Georgia)
When Cuba recorded "El Pito" ("the whistle") in 1965, he scored one of the biggest crossover hits of his career. The song laid down the blueprint for the incoming Latin boogaloo style by combining catchy piano montunos (riffs) with infectious hooks -- in this case, both the whistle and the chorus in English, "I'll never go back to Georgia." That refrain was actually taken from Dizzy Gillespie's Latin jazz classic "Manteca," but ironically, none of the band members had ever been to Georgia in the first place.
Cuba formed his integral sextet in the late 1950s, during the thick of the cha-cha-chá craze. Known for its deceptively slow, slinky feel, cha-cha-chás gave rise to any number of variations, one of the most popular fads being the "Wabble-Cha," which inspired this song by the Cuba Sextet in 1963. The term "Latin soul" hadn't yet come into vogue, but you can hear in the rhythms and vocals (presumably by longtime Cuba partner Jose "Cheo" Feliciano) a hint of how American soul music might fuse with Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Do You Feel It?
Joe Cuba was always attached to his East Harlem roots: He released a 1964 album called El Alma del Barrio/The Soul of Spanish Harlem
, and he continually recorded dedications to his neighborhood, including "Do You Feel It?" By 1972, when that record was recorded, boogaloo was over. But Cuba was still playing with musical fusions, bringing funk elements into an otherwise slow, cha-cha-chá rhythm. His longtime vocalist Jimmy Sabater talks about growing up in el barrio
, with all its pleasures (more Spanish food shout-outs!) and challenges (poverty and racial tension). It's a love letter to East Harlem, stark in its honesty but heartfelt in its sentiment.
Salsa Ahi Na' Ma'
When Cuba recorded "Salsa Ahi Na' Ma'" in 1976, he was bringing part of his career full circle -- the song is an updated version of "Tremendo Coco," which he originally recorded in 1964. The rhythm is a
classic guaguanco -- a popular Cuban folkloric style that survived into the salsa era -- and Cuba updates the sound to match the production sophistication of the mid-'70s. But the song is otherwise loyal to the original, especially by turning the old chorus into the new title: "salsa ahi na' ma'" (salsa, just like that).