Joe Cuba: Father of New York Boogaloo has passed
By. Aurora Flores
Collaborator of Herencia Latina
The "Father of
Boogaloo," Joe Cuba, passed away on Sunday, February 15, 2009
at 4 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. He was the most popular
exponent of the boogaloo, a fused Latino and R&B rhythm that exploded
onto the American top 40s charts during the turbulent 1960s & ‘70s.
Hits such as “Bang Bang,” “Push Push,” “El Pito,” “Ariñañara,”
and “Sock It To Me Baby,” rocked the hit parades establishing
Joe Cuba and his Sextet as the definitive sound of Latin New York
during the ‘60s & ‘70s. The Joe Cuba Sextet’s unusual instrumentation
featured vibraphones replacing the traditional brass sound. His music
was at the forefront of the Nuyroican movement of New York where the
children of Puerto Rican emigrants, America’s last citizens, took music,
culture, arts and politics into their own hands.
Joe Cuba’s Sextet became popular in the New York Latino community
precisely because it fused a bilingual mix of Afro-Caribbean genres
blended with the popular urban rhythm & blues of its time creating a
musical marriage between the Fania and Motown sound. His was the first
musical introduction to Latin rhythms for many American aficionados. The
lyrics to Cuba's repertoire mixed Spanish and English, becoming an
important part of the emerging Nuyorican identity.
“Joe Cuba’s music validated the developing Nuyorican population whose
language and music Cuba captured with his sound,” underlines
Giora Breil, CEO of Emusica, the company that now owns the Fania
label and who has remastered many of the classics to a new generation of
music lovers. “He led the urban tribe,” pointed Breil, “into
a united front of cultural warriors that were defining the social and
political times they lived in.”
Longtime manager and promoter Hector Maisonave recalls Cuba as ”an
innovator who crossed over into mainstream music at an early time. He
was the soul of El Barrio. After Joe Cuba, El Barrio is just a street
that crosses an avenue.”
In 1962, Cuba recorded "To Be With You" with the vocals of Cheo
Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater whose careers he spotlighted after the bands
introductory appearance at the Stardust Ballroom prior to its summer
stint in the Catskills.
Born in 1931 in the heart of Spanish Harlem, his Puerto Rican parents
arrived in New York City in the 20s. Christened "Gilberto Miguel
Calderón," Cuba was a “doo wopper” who played for J. Panama in 1950
when he was a young 19 year old before going on to play for La Alfarona
X, where the young “congüerro/” percussionist replaced Sabu Martinez
tapped to play with Xavier Cugat.
By 1965, the Sextet got their first crossover hit with the Latino and
soul fusion of "El Pito” (I Never Go Back To Georgia), a tune Cuba
recorded against the advice of the producer later to be “broken” by a DJ
over WBLS FM in N.Y.. The Dizzy Gillespie "Never Go Back To Georgia"
chant was taken from the intro to the seminal Afro-Cuban tune,
"Manteca." Vocalist Jimmy Sabater later revealed that "none of us had
ever been to Georgia." In fact, Cuba later comically described a
conversation he had with the Governor of Georgia who called him
demanding why he would record a song whose chorus negatively derided the
still segregated Southern town. The quick thinking Joe Cuba replied,
“Georgia is the name of my girl.”
exemplified the power that comes from collaboration." highlighted
East Harlem's councilwoman Meissa Mark Viverito. "Through his
music, Joe brought together Latinos and African Americans and his art
form reflected the influences of both cultures, Furthermore, his music
united Harlem and East Harlem by reflecting the growth both communities
experienced during the 1960s and '70s. Joe Cuba made Spanish Harlem
proud as he bravely brought his particular New York Latino identity to
stages all over the world."
In 1967, Joe Cuba’s band --–with no horns– scored a "hit" in the United
States National Hit Parade List with the song "Bang Bang" - a tune that
ushered in the Latin Boogaloo era. He also had a #1 hit, that year on
the Billboard charts with the song "Sock It To Me Baby." The band’s
instrumentation included congas, timbales, an occasional bongo, bass,
piano and vibraphone. “A bastard sound,” is what Cuba called it
pointing to the fans, the people, as the true creators of this music. “You
don’t go into a rehearsal and say ‘Hey, let’s invent a new sound, or
dance.’ They happen. The boogaloo came out of left field. “ Joe
Cuba recounts in Mary Kent’s book:” Salsa Talks: A Musical History
Uncovered. “It’s the public that creates new dances and different
things. The audience invents, the audience relates to what you are
doing and then puts their thing into what you are playing,” pointing
to other artists such as Ricardo Ray or Hector Rivera as pioneers of the
urban fused rhythm.
“I met Joe up in the Catskills in 1955,” recalls nine time Grammy
Award winner Eddie Palmieri. “When I later started La
Perfecta,” Palmieri muses, “we alternated on stages with Joe. He
was full of life and had a great sense of humor, always laughing at his
own jokes,” chuckles the pianist. Palmieri pointed to Cuba’s many
musical contributions underlining the power and popularity of his small
band and bilingual lyrics while providing a springboard for the
harmonies and careers of Cheo Feliciano, Willie Torres and Jimmy Sabater.
“He was Spanish Harlem personified,” describes Palmieri recalling
the “take no prisoners” attitude Cuba had when it came to dealing with
those who reluctantly paid the musicians. Recalling their early
recording days with the infamous Morris Levy, Palmieri cites the antics
of Joe Cuba, Ismael Rivera and himself as the reason for Levy selling
them as a Tico package to Fania label owner, Jerry Masucci.
Funny, irreverent and with a great humor for practical jokes, Joe Cuba,
or Sonny as he was called by his closest friends, was raised in East
Harlem. Stickball being the main sport for young boys of the
neighborhood, Cuba’s father organized a stickball club called the
Devils. After Cuba broke a leg, he took up playing the conga and
continued to practice between school and his free time. Eventually, he
graduated from high school and joined a band.
“He was not afraid to experiment,” said David Fernandez,
arranger & musical director of Zon del Barrio who played with the
legendary Cuba when he arrived in New York in 2002.
By 1954, at the suggestion of his agent to change the band's name from
the Jose Calderon Sextet to the Joe Cuba Sextet, the newly named Joe
Cuba Sextet made their debut at the Stardust Ballroom. Charlie Palmieri
was musical director of the sextet before his untimely 1988 death from a
Since then, the Joe Cuba Sextet and band has been a staple of concerts
and festivals that unite both Latinos, African-Americans and just plain
music lovers in venues all over the world.
In 2003, the following CDs were released:
* "Joe Cuba Sextet Vol I: Mardi Gras Music for Dancing"
* "Merengue Loco" and
* "Out of This World Cha Cha".
In 2004, Joe Cuba was named Grand Marshall of the Puerto Rican Day
Parade celebrated in Yonkers, New York. Musician Willie Villegas
who traveled with Joe for the past 15 years said, “It didn’t matter
where we played around the world Joe would always turn to me and say, To
My Barrio…. With Love! "
Joe Cuba is survived by his wife Maria Calderon, sons Mitchell and
Cesar, daughter Lisa, and grandchildren Nicole and Alexis.
Condolences can be sent directly to Joe Cuba's widow: Maria Calderon @
Joe Cuba will be viewed at the R&G Ortiz Funeral Home located at 204
E. 116th Street, NYC 10029 between 3rd & 2nd Avenues. 212.722.3512 on
Wednesday & Thursday, February 18th & 19th from 2 to 10 p.m.
Joe Cuba and
his wife Maria