True to their name, Boogaloo Assassins have a murderous sound — a heavy mixture of Afro-Latin rhythms, funky horn arrangements and soulful vocals that both define boogaloo as a genre and contribute to a much wider sound. The result is something both unique to Los Angeles and timeless for Latin music lovers; they call it the sound of West Coast Spanish Harlem.
“We're just trying to make it sound authentic,” singer Charles Farrar says. “This music has a high standard; the singing and the musicality is very difficult. And people will compare you to the greats [like] Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. We have big shoes to fill.”
The Assassins' 12 sharp-dressed members — a full lineup of timbales, piano, bongo and congas, saxophones, trombone, bass and four singers — recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a sold-out show at the Echo. Although the past few years have seen a renewed interest in boogaloo, a mixture of traditional Latin and Caribbean music with soul and R&B that has its roots in 1960s New York, Boogaloo Assassins remain on the forefront of this renaissance as the only West Coast group playing a very East Coast style of music.
“We came from that L.A. traditional ska point of view … we kind of worshipped the older records and we wanted to sound like that,” says pianist William Purdy of the group's origins. “All those groups took the approach of trying to play Jamaican music as authentically as possible. We used that as the blueprint.”
L.A. Weekly first wrote about the band back in 2008, just a year after it was formed by Purdy, formerly of the ska band See Spot, and Farrar, who was in Ocean 11 with bassist-singer Eddie “Chiquis” Lozoya. At the time, Boogaloo Assassins had a residency at the Mint and regularly played the Continental Room in Fullerton, as well as other clubs around town. In 2010 the band were invited to New York by Fania Records and Wax Poetics to play a tribute concert for Latin boogaloo legend Joe Cuba. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” Farrar says.
The band continue to practice every Wednesday night, fine-tuning their knowledge of covers and creating originals. They released a six-song EP in 2013 called Old Love Dies Hard, which featured an instrumental version of Willie Bobo's “Evil Ways” and a Latin spin on Dawn Penn's 1994 reggae classic “No, No, No,” which caught fire among DJs, radio programmers and fans.
While you'll hear the track on KCRW or at Funky Sole, “No, No, No” really took off in the salsa community for its fast pace, percussion and familiar lyrics in both English and Spanish. Boogaloo Assassins now regularly play salsa clubs, and the dance floor explodes every time the song gets underway — a fairly unexpected feat in the salsa circuit, where traditional bands reign supreme.
“Sometimes in those circuits, if you're not doing exactly what all those other bands are doing, [dancers] don't appreciate you as much,” says timbalero Billy Rojas, who came up with the idea of covering Penn's tune while at a rocksteady club in London. “The single was able to get a lot of people's attention. Everyone's heard the song; whether they know the artist or not, they've heard the original version.”
Since that single hit, Boogaloo Assassins haven't stopped. The band backed up salsa legend Roberto Roena at San Francisco's Stern Grove Festival in 2014, signed a licensing deal with famed salsa label Fania Records, opened for Latin soul king Joe Bataan multiple times, and toured and recorded with R&B musician-producer Nick Waterhouse.
Boogaloo Assassins' commitment to trying different sounds makes them unique among salsa bands (although none of the Assassins would label themselves as a salsa band) and traditional among boogaloo bands. Historically, artists such as Mongo Santamaría, Machito and Richie Ray were known as boogaloo musicians but also performed a wide variety of Latin music styles, from boleros to pachangas, mambos to montunos. These days, about half of the Assassins' set has a salsa feel while the other half features boogaloos and mashups of different rhythms, such as the Puerto Rican bomba and Cuban Mozambique.
“We have a tune called 'Bomba' that goes from bomba to mambo and has an outro that's Mozambique,” Purdy says. “I feel like that is something that Willie Colón might've done back in the day.”
The guys in the band have also gotten more open-minded, Farrar adds. “If you would've asked me in the beginning to do a bomba tune, I would've said, 'Nah, I'm Cuban, I don't do that.'”
“Latin bands are no longer just playing the Latin circuit or the jazz circuit; more people get it.” -Billy Rojas
“If anything, I think we've gotten on more traditional stuff because I think the band likes to be challenged,” Rojas notes, adding that his favorite song to play currently is a cover of the song “El Preso” by Colombian salsa artist Fruko. “We still throw the boogaloo in our set list. We have new boogaloo called 'Be My Baby,' a little Latin soul that's catchy, too.”
The Boogaloo Assassins are in the process of recording a second record, which will feature more original songs and possibly a cover of a Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings tune (the band performed at the late singer's tribute show earlier this year). Gabriel Gonzalez, one of the newest members of the group, sings lead on a cover of Jones' “Tell Me,” done as an uptempo cha cha cha that starts and ends with a traditional African rhythm and squeezes some boogaloo in between.
“How we see ourselves has gone from guys just trying to pay homage to this music style that we loved … [to] trying to create our own version of it and our own identity,” Purdy says.
Boogaloo Assassins have lasted longer than the recent boogaloo revival itself, carrying the torch from '60s New York to a new generation of Latin music lovers locally. The group's attention to detail — from their complex rhythmic arrangements to their suits and design graphics — might have something to do with their longevity.
“The size of the group, the attention to honoring the older music, the kinda multiethnic background of the group — you've got Asian, black, white and Latinos from L.A. and ones from different parts of the Latin diaspora — it's a real hybrid, like Latin boogaloo itself was,” Purdy says.
Being based in L.A. is also crucial to the Assassins' success, where they've managed to distinguish themselves in a city that's not hurting for Latin bands.
“I think L.A.'s music scene right now is as good as it's ever been. I think a lot of the people who listen to Latin music also listen to soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz, house, disco,” Rojas says. “Because L.A. is so diverse … we're able to make a mark. Latin bands are no longer just playing the Latin circuit or the jazz circuit; more people get it.”
BOOGALOO ASSASSINS | Levitt Pavilion, MacArthur Park, 2230 W. Sixth St., Westlake | Fri., Aug. 4, 7:30 p.m. | Free | levittlosangeles.org