Joe Cuba: Inventor of the boogaloo

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The Independent Online

Starting with the twist, the 1960s was a decade for new dances. One of these, the boogaloo, was a Latin-American dance that first became popular in New York, where its principal exponent was the Joe Cuba Sextet. The group had a million-seller in the US with the highly infectious "Bang Bang" (1966).

"You don't go into a rehearsal and say, 'Let's invent a new sound or dance,'" Joe Cuba would later say, "They happen."

Joe Cuba's parents came from Puerto Rico to New York in the late 1920s and settled in East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem. He was born Gilberto Miguel Calderon in 1931 and his father owned a sweet shop on the ground floor of the apartment building in which they lived. His father organised a street version of baseball but after the young Gilberto broke a leg, he had nothing more to do with it. He played the congas and after graduating from high school, he joined a band.

Calderon intended to qualify as a lawyer but he became entranced by the music of the Puerto Rican bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente, who was based in New York. Puente encouraged him to form his own band, and in 1954, he led the Joe Cuba Sextet, the new name being the suggestion of his agent, and they played key ballrooms in New York City. Most Latin music was performed by orchestras, but although Cuba favoured a smaller unit, he had three percussionists (Cheo Feliciano, Jimmy Sabater and himself), who could sing and dance as well as play. He was a good-natured, friendly man and an ideal bandleader.

Many of the Puerto Ricans spoke English and so Cuba made records in both Spanish and English, which gave them a wider appeal. In 1962, his sextet had success with "To be with you", and in 1965, they had their first million-seller with "El Pito (I'll never go back to Georgia)", which borrowed a catchy chant from Dizzy Gillespie's jazz record, "Manteca". Cuba's hit came from the successful album, Estamos Haciendo Algo Bien.

By now, Cuba was adding American soul music to the Latino sound. The mix developed into the boogaloo and the best record for dancing it was Cuba's "Bang Bang" (1966), written by him and Sabater. Admittedly a variation of "La Bamba", this was a vibrant and exciting track with a party spirit that would entice even non-dancers on to the floor. Cuba followed it with "Push, push, push" and "Sock it to me, baby", which became a key phrase on the TV show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, where the boogaloo was featured for comic effect.

With a few more twists and turns, the boogaloo developed into the more sophisticated salsa, and again the Joe Cuba Sextet recorded some key tracks. Joe Cuba remained at the forefront of Latin events in New York and in later years he was a director of the International Salsa Museum in Manhattan.

Spencer Leigh

Gilberto Miguel Calderon (Joe Cuba), bandleader: born New York 1931; married (two sons, one daughter); died New York 15 February 2009.