Do, do, do the funky baseball bat
Dance crazes come and go. We've had them all - the twist, the jerk, the swim, the hitch-hike. Now the macarena is here, the latest fad to drive you mad.
Saturday 27 July 1996
These are Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz, 47-year-old fathers of four children each, trading as Los Del Rio - the People of the River (the Guadalquivir, which runs through their native Seville) - and they've just been in London to tie up one of the last few countries to succumb to macarena mania.
"Macarena", their record, is the most recent example of that perennial phenomenon, the worldwide summer dance hit, and their record company is positively gibbering with thrilled statistics. Call the Madrid office and they will fax you pages of arcane and hastily translated chart positions: Week 11, No 2 in Germany; Week 22, No 18 in Finland; Week 15, Border Braker [sic] at No 11. They are accompanied by a miscellany of factoids, headed "Macarena's Notes": "On Dallas September '95, Macarena entered on Guinness Records - the largest line of people dancing, 5,000" or "Traffic police in Philippines are training with Macarena" or "All discos worldwide have contests with Macarena's dance".
Talking to Sr Ruiz in London - his partner is not feeling too well, and they've got to be on stage in Granada tomorrow for 30,000 people in the main square - he keeps interrupting enthusiastically with a further supply of facts, to make quite sure you get the picture. "It's just got to No 1 in the US, they've just called me," and, "You know this is the biggest selling Spanish record ever," and, "You know their Majesties received us last month on our 30th anniversary." Ruiz is delighted but not entirely surprised by their success. "We knew we were going to have a big hit with 'Macarena' from the first moment."
There is no question that "Macarena" and its status deserve each other. I first heard the record shortly after its original Spanish release in Spring 1993, when it was a relatively docile, unremixed rumba, and then a year later in Miami, in its early "River Remix", beefed up by a Spanish outfit called Fangoria. At that point, it was thumping out of the car radio on Miami's Latin stations every half hour. Last week, I played a bit of "Macarena", among a dozen or so other tracks, to a group of foreign students in a music talk at an English Language school, during which the subject of "catchiness" came up, and afterwards a deputation of ladies from Japan, one of the few other nations not to have experienced "Macarena" mania yet, approached me to ask where they could buy "catchy music". It transpired, of course, that they were talking about "Macarena", because the song is a textbook example of how to drill into the musical memory and stay there until dislodged after some time by the inevitable reaction - nausea, coma, etc.
The Spanish version is supremely catchy, but subsequent English versions have progressively weakened the song, compromising the sprightliness of the rumba rhythm and its flamenco clapping, and adding a bland, semi-nonsensical American babe lead vocal. The original words scarcely constitute high lyric art, but at least marginally enhance the product with an amusing thumbnail scenario, involving a girl's name, that of the Virgin of Macarena, Seville's most revered manifestation of the Mother of God; a refrain, sung to the girl in question: "Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena, Que tu cuerpo es 'pa darle alegria y cosas buenas" - roughly "Dance with joy in your body, Macarena. Your body is for joy and good things"; and a boyfriend, Vitorino, cuckolded during his induction into military service by Macarena, who gives corporeal joy to his two friends while Vitorino is swearing loyalty to the flag.
The macarena dance, such as it is, came into existence around the time of the Anglicisation of the record in early autumn 1995 following its big spring success in Mexico and Latin America. The record company now put out a video, prefixed by the announcement "The following steps unlock the key to a Latin dance sensation that is sweeping the world", in which a group of Benetton-esque multi-ethnic cuties demonstrate the untaxing choreography: hands behind head in turn; arms stretched out in front, hands on hips; two beats of freestyle bump and grind; jump quarter turn to right; repeat to the end. How it was created is unclear, the record company insisting it was a spontaneous mass phenomenon somewhere around Mexico. Whatever, the new steps are bland in comparison to macarena's natural accompaniment, as are the English lyrics to the Spanish.
The song was first a pop rumba, a modern version of one of the light relations of flamenco, written for the Seville April Fair of 1993. It was in the caseta entertainment tents of that huge and traditional week- long party that Los Del Rio's new number made its initial presence felt, just as its predecessor, "Sevilla Tiene Un Color Especial", had in April 1992, ushering in the Seville Expo.
The duo, born just outside Seville, were childhood friends and practised together in small salones de fiesta until they could give up their daytime jobs as shop assistants and go professional. In Seventies Madrid, high society began to invite them to entertain parties - the Marques of Cubas, President of the Spanish RAC, was an early patron. In Spain, their music is at the hickish end of the dance spectrum - for the middle-aged, the endless round of southern summer town fiestas, nostalgic ex-pats, never hip young dance fans.
The same holds true for the UK, but macarena is inching its way through the complex demographic strata of dance trends towards success, partly due to heavy plugging. "We were rather reluctant to play macarena, it's so corny," I was told by Scott Cridland, programming assistant on the West of England dance station Galaxy Radio, employed to interpret "the buzz from the street". Was there a street buzz about macarena? "None whatsoever," says Cridland, "but the record company was so persistent, sending us copy after copy, and then it got on TV, so we gave in. It's not really dance music in modern terms ... I haven't heard anything like it since the lambada or that thing 10 years ago, 'Agadoo'."
So what is macarena, genre-wise? Handbag? "No, handbag is invariably House music." World handbag, then, or Latin handbag? "Well, possibly the first-known example of Latin handbag," Cridland allowed finally.
The mention of "Agadoo" casts a pall over the subject and points to why dance crazes and the UK are on strained terms. Once, in the halcyon post- rock 'n' roll years, black American artists made it hip to mimic dance steps, and novelty dances abounded; both full-scale crazes serviced by hundreds of records like "The Twist" or "The Madison", and one-offs that centred on a single record - the jerk, swim, bump, hustle, hitch-hike, and dozens more. Then, from the Seventies onwards, dance crazes slid into a slough of kitsch. Veteran club and Radio 1 DJ Adrian Jay reminded me of intermediate stages, such as massed disco floors flinging their arms skywards in a uniform pointing gesture to the line "Go, go out the door" from Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". Things hit rock bottom with the Costa del Sol "Agadoos" and "Birdie Songs", now consigned to the repertoires of a tiny hyper-vulgar elite among the most unsophisticated of the nation's karaoke systems.
If this state of affairs is to be remedied, the current interest in tropical music is a healthy sign. Africa and the Caribbean have retained strong dance-craze traditions. Zaiko Langa Langa, doyens of the all-conquering Central African soukous groups, are legendarily prolific and inventive with new dances, avidly copied by the public, egged on by shouters calling out the steps and whipping up the atmosphere. Similarly, Cuban groups like NG La Banda, who demonstrated their latest, the cucalambe, to me last week. Tropical dances often have the advantage of being lewd. The cucalambe has a three-part action, striking with a baseball bat, waving a machete, and riding a horse, which is accomplished by grasping an imaginary saddle pommel in both hands held one above the other just above the pelvis, which thrusts upwards rhythmically. The chorus of another Cuban band, La Charanga Habanera, does a particularly striking version of this movement, led by a deeply unsavoury looking young man who almost appears to drool. Masturbatory Latin handbag, then, could be the way forward, but in the meantime we have the macarena, which, incidentally, has just become a tinned tuna TV ad in Spain.
Doing the dog: five great dance crazes in pop-terpsichorean history...
Rufus Thomas: "Walking the Dog" (1963)
Veteran soul star with roots almost back to vaudeville - he began his career with the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels in pre-war Tennessee. Thomas has been a veritable factory of dance crazes, which are all but indistinguishable from each other in both steps (from the animal kingdom) and theme (also from the animal kingdom). Viz: the Dog, the Funky Chicken, the Monkey, the Funky Penguin and so on.
Little Eva: "The Locomotion" (1962)
Make like pistons with the arms while twisting to do this classic from the great post-Twist era of black American dance crazes, regularly revived ever since. Little Eva also launched the Turkey Trot (shake your wattles and get stuffed), while her sister Idalia got in on the act with the Hula Hoop.
The Tweets: "The Birdie Song" (1981)
Flap elbows like a chicken to engage in this acme of inanity, the absolute be-all-and-end-all of bilge, which derives from a record so moronic it has actually been written out of British pop history. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, which has room enough for Twiggy, Twinkle, Mark Twang and Jim Twankydillo, has no entry for The Tweets.
Black Lace: "Agadoo" (1984)
Shake a pineapple, shake a tree. Colin Routh and Alan Barton, the authors, became "targets of relentless scorn", according to Guinness, for this and other gems. Presumably, they also became the target of relentless money. Unearth a copy of Black Lace's 16 Great Party Ice Breakers at your local car boot sale and find out why.
Kaoma: "The Lambada" (1989)
Jive-swirl, writhe sexily and straddle your partner's thigh to do this genuine tropical dance from Caribbean Brazil, which was coupled to a stolen Bolivian melody, recorded by a French session band, heavily plugged by a French television station and a soft drinks company, and finally re-exported to Brazil. One of the great marketing campaigns.
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