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Cuban Music Lesson: Bugalu Or Boogaloo

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

One of the defining characteristics of Cuban music is its seemingly infinite adaptability. Wherever it goes and whatever it comes in contact with, the music absorbs and incorporates it. When thousands of Cuban musicians came to the United States in the 60’s, they brought their own traditions with them and mixed it up with the stuff that was already here. In New York City, this marriage of old school Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, and American R&B gave birth to bugalu, the forerunner of salsa.

Bugalu, (or boogaloo), is basically a highly danceable R&B influenced take on the mambo. In the 60’s, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans all found themselves living in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. New York had a long standing love of Afro-Caribbean music going back to the 20’s, when the first Latin clubs opened up in Harlem. Later, in the 50’s during the mambo craze, the Palladium was the place to be. The first synthesis of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and African-American styles happened in these clubs. Bugalu was a way to try and bridge the gap and appeal to everyone. It worked.

Bugalu had tremendous success. Bands like the Joe Cuba Sextet, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, El Gran Combo, and Willie Colon all had crossover bugalu hits. At the start of the 70’s, bugalu started to wane in popularity and it sort of morphed into salsa. Bugalu can be seen as a transitional form, bridging the gap from the old school stuff to the new. My mom and dad first bonded over their shared love of bugalu, so I guess I owe it my life. ¡Gracias bugalu!

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