Some 15 years ago, DJ Jonny Semi-Colon (born Jonathan Goldman) had an epiphany while he was spinning at his club gigs. It wasn't the house or techno or even vintage disco that moved dancers the most on the dance floor.
It was boogaloo, that hybrid of 1960s soul and Afro-Caribbean dance music that was born in the parties and social halls of Puerto Rican New York City in the waning days of Latin ballroom big bands and just before the salsa boom of the early 70's.
"I went crazy for it," says Goldman.
So he set out to put a band together.
The DJ had started as a trumpet player in funk bands and he had to "completely retrain" his brain to learn boogaloo classics.
By 2009 his band, Spanglish Fly, was playing clubs in New York City, eventually opening for boogaloo legends Joe Bataan and Johnny Colón.
And now its new album, Ay Que Boogaloo, stretches that infectious sound with genre-bending interplays between bolero, New Orleans funk, swing jazz, Arabic chant, doo-wop and more. In an interview from New York he says, "We're showing that boogaloo is a flexible genre, not just Latin and soul music. It's jazz and hip-hop and other things, with the complexities of Afro-Cuban rhythms."
The 12-piece Spanglish Fly's modern twist on boogaloo explodes with creativity, slick arrangements and gorgeous double-lead-vocals by Mariella Gonzalez and Paloma Muñoz. There's so much happening, yet it's seamless in its complexity.
There is an impressive re-working of the Amy Winehouse classic "You Know I'm No Good," in which Gonzalez croons a bolero opening that uncannily evokes the late singer, before the song breaks into a grand salsa-mambo finale. It peaks with an impromptu hip-hop overlay punctuated with horns and ends in flamenco-style guitar. "When we went into a salsa jam for the second half of the tune, Mariella was going to sing eight or twelve soneos – improvised lines – that we talked about beforehand, but then in the studio she just caught fire. She got the spirit and wouldn't stop... so the rhythm section, the bass and piano player kept playing. It was a magical moment."
Her baby was in the studio and suddenly wanted his mama. "So, she's singing with the baby in her arms, and he's totally calm. At the very end, he made a sound and we left it in."
Amidst all the album's high energy, the soulful ballad "How Do You Know," sung by Muñoz, offers a brief respite. Goldman says "it's in 12/8 time; the one tune on the record that's not in standard salsa 4/4 time." One of his favorite studio moments happened as the producer tried shooby-doo-wop overdubs over the lead vocals that became a wall of sound. "That 'wall of Palomas' sent shivers up my spine."
How Do You Know by Spanglish Fly
"New York Rules" is an ode to booglaoo's hometown, featuring the legend himself, Joe Bataan. In not one, but two versions: a more classic salsa and another more techno jazz infused. And hearing the elder statesman on these fresh new tracks touches the heart.
New York Rules by Spanglish Fly
"Boogaloo Shoes" is fun and complex with a dominating horn riff. Yet, it's the little things that gives it an edge. After the tenor sax lead, a jazz organ comes in over the Cuban guajeo piano riff leading to a sassy rap: "...they could be made for walking, and that that's just what they'll do, cause we're putting the you in zapatos (shoes) boogaloo."
"Ojala Inshallah" is the band's protest song. Ojalá is a Spanish word for "hopefully," which is derived from the Arabic inshallah, or "God willing."
"Here was a multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-national, multi-generational group recording an album of Afro-Caribbean music with lyrics in Spanish and English and a bit of French and Arabic," says Goldman. "The song is about the eradication of borders, but also, like, 'I hope you like my new song / I hope you get to dance all night.'
"I asked a playwright-poet friend to write these lines in Arabic," Goldman says. "He said each line of the poem could stand on its own ... and he recorded them like a prayer or chant."
Ojala Inshalla by Spanglish Fly
"The choice we made to make multicultural music in a band with people from all over the world was really resonating for us," Goldman says. "There was no turning point in my life that turned me into a Jewish guy playing Latin music, but I look around when we're playing and think to myself that this is the kind of world I want to live in."