East Harlem is a long way from West Pico, but every first Friday, the Boogaloo Assassins close the distance. The band’s dozen or so members crowd a small stage at club/bar the Mint, and as the midnight crowd mills about, they launch into the insistent bass line of Monguito Santamaria’s “Groovetime,” one of the many Latin soul classics the Assassins have in the repertoire. Sometimes, they remix things a bit, overlaying “Groovetime” with the refrain from Joe Cuba’s “El Pito”: “I’ll never go back to Georgia ... I’ll never go back.” But back they do go, returning 40 years to the heyday of the Latin boogaloo, a music from the heart of Spanish Harlem, which the Assassins are reviving in the cradle of L.A.
The original boogaloo music and dance craze came in 1965, with the unexpected R&B hit, “Boo-Ga-Loo” by Chicago’s Tom and Jerrio. By 1966, boogaloo traveled to East Harlem and found resonance with a generation of young Puerto-Rican-American musicians raised on equal parts mambo and doo-wop. Huge hits like Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang” and Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” ignited the biggest Latin music craze of the 1960s, burning brightly — though briefly — from New York to Miami, San Juan to Lima.
Inspired by African-American R&B rhythms but reworked with Afro-Cuban instrumentation, boogaloo was a shining example of American cross-cultural fusion. However, like disco a decade later, boogaloo’s popularity was equaled by derision from music purists, especially older Latin players. Salsa great Eddie Palmieri once dismissed it as “Latin bubblegum,” though even he bent to the demands of the market and recorded boogaloos. Once salsa became ascendent in the early 1970s, however, boogaloo’s antagonists were more than happy to stamp away its memory underneath a clave beat.
The music’s appeal survived among a dedicated following of younger Latin-music collectors, DJs and musicians. Such aficionados formed the nucleus of the Boogaloo Assassins back in early 2007, finding one another through a dense web of different L.A.-based soul, jazz, reggae and ska bands. Vocalists Charles and Benjamin Farrar first met pianist Bill Purdy through the ska outfit L.A. Allstar Revue, bonding during rehearsals over Purdy’s improvised, Cuban montuno piano riffs. Farrar recalls, “I’ve always loved this music. Never seen anyone else playing it.” The Farrars and conguero Darren Everage had already been jamming together and with Purdy added on keys, they gravitated heavily towards boogaloo. “We love salsa and traditional Cuban music,” says Purdy, “but we found that late ’60s, early ’70s sound to be this thing we were going to chase down.”
These days, the Assassins meet for weekly rehearsals at the West Adams home of guiro player Richi Panta (also in the cumbia band Very Be Careful). The band’s music spills out of the front door and drifts along a block of old Craftsman homes and aging apartment buildings. I ask Panta if the music ever bothers his neighbors and he says it’s never been a problem: “Sometimes they’ll get out their lawn chairs and listen.”
Everyone is packed into Panta’s living room, strands of white Christmas lights providing illumination. A few members are missing — Benjamin Farrar, and bongocero Sergio Padilla — but the rest of the Assassins are present, including trombonist Tom Cook and tenor saxophonist Joe Bautista (two other L.A. Allstar Revue alum). Eddie “Chiquis” Lozoya, another ska veteran (See Spot), was originally sought for vocals but his gifts on bass proved more essential. Rounding out the band are vocalist “Bobby Soul” McLachan (Descarga) and his friend and fellow Latin DJ, Billy “Goods” Rojas (Funkmosphere) on timbales.
Their ranks include musicians with Cuban, African American, Filipino, Mexican, Scottish and Colombian descent, another testament to the boogaloo era, where ’60s Latin bands regularly employed Puerto-Rican, Cuban, African-American, and Jewish players (to name a few). As Farrar explains, “[Our band] shows the kind of beautiful creativity that develops out of different cultural groups. That’s how boogaloo started.”
When the group first began gigging at Fullerton’s Continental Room a year ago, their sets were filled with such songs as the Har-You Percussion Group’s swinging “Welcome to the Party,” and “Watusi Boogaloo,” a catchy, late-era boogaloo hit from Willie Rosario. With their monthly residency at the Mint serving as a test ground for new material, the group has broadened their musical reach, as members draw from their personal playlists. “We brought our own songs that we felt comfortable with and loved,” says McLachan, whose affection for Joe Bataan’s uptempo smash “Gypsy Woman,” helped to make it a standard in their set list.
At rehearsal, Rojas suggests an Afro-Cubanized makeover of Dawn Penn’s roots reggae standard, “No, No, No.” They first try it as a slow bolero-cha but find that a faster, salsa approach is a better fit. “Back in the day, they would take Motown or doo-wop songs and turn them into a boogaloo track,” McLachan explains, adding, “we’re trying to find that crossover hit.”
This kind of experimentation is integral to the Assassins’ creative growth, especially as they move away from straight covers. Charles Farrar admits, “Collectively, we have written many songs in other styles, but this is our first attempt writing Latin music.”
Purdy adds, “In a big group, new ideas seem to come in fits — a montuno here, a coro there — right now we’re allowing the process to develop as an organic, live creation, staying close to the roots.”
Working with “No, No, No” might seem like an obvious choice given the band’s deep roots in the ska/reggae scene, but bassist Lozoya, the group’s rhythmic anchor, points out, “Reggae music, you’re always behind the beat. Coming into [Latin], I have to be way more on top, pushing the band. The pocket is two different things; it’s a hard transition.”
Challenging as it may be, perfecting that sound is what the Boogaloo Assassins are banking on in order to distinguish themselves in a city already thick with Latin bands playing everything from rancheras and bossa nova to the ubiquitous mariachi. However, Rojas believes “the timing was right, we landed at the right moment. It’s an East Coast sound and there’s a million salsa bands in L.A. But we’re not trying to do what they do.”
So far, the band has conspicuously sought eclectic pairings rather than targeting more conventional salsa or cumbia parties. This year, they’ve played with everyone from Riverside’s “Mexi-ska” band Mula to Jersey City’s Afro-electro group Chico Mann. “We’re trying to book ourselves with punk bands and rockabilly groups and funk groups,” McLachan says, “we’re trying to book ourselves in the least place you’d expect to see a boogaloo band.”
Case in point: The group headlined at the Getty Center’s Summer Sessions in July, playing on the Garden Terrace, with the sprawling Westside basin as their backdrop. By the group’s third song, Joe Torres’ “Get Out of My Way,” a huge crowd all but filled the Terrace and couples snuck past security into fire lanes to show off their cha-cha steps. Even those packed in shoulder-to-shoulder find enough wiggle room to sway and bob. This is the response that always follows the boogaloo. “I been in a bunch of bands and never ever felt a reaction from an audience like I have with this [music]. It’s high energy and it’s fun, and people respond to it,” McLachan says.
Their Getty set ended with a thunderous close and on the last hit, Charles Farrar threw up a fist, his outstretched arm silhouetted against the dusk sky. The gesture captured the vibrancy and power of the moment — and of the music. Latin boogaloo originally bubbled up as an energetic expression of New York’s barrio youth, and some four decades later (and 2,500 miles away), the Los Asesinos de Boogaloo carry on that tradition, far from home yet seemingly right at home.
The Boogaloo Assassins perform at The Mint (6010 W. Pico Blvd.) on Fri., November 7, and at the Bordello on Sat., November 8.