By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
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.”