UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 20, 2009

PASSINGS: JOE CUBA

David Gonzalez, NY Times - For the first time anyone could remember - or even comprehend - the sight of Joe Cuba brought people to tears. For more than half a century, this conga-playing son of El Barrio fronted bands whose music was relentless, hip and happy. Real happy.

But there was no joy on 116th Street Wednesday, at least not at first sight of Joe, laid out in his coffin, though sharp as ever in his black tux, white gloves and a gray homburg. Here was the Father of the Latin Boogaloo, a fusion of Latin and soul music that made him a crossover king in the late 1960s. . .

Outside, under the narrow awning, people huddled to escape the rain.

"I'm going to see him," Juan Nieves said. "A friend of mine died, too, and I'm going to see her inside. But I have to see him. His music was the best from the '60s. His sextet was the ultimate. They had all the songs. Oye, ese pito!"

Hey, that whistle! That was the first line to "El Pito" - which was always followed by five quick toots.

For a while in the 1960s, those five notes were the clarion call of an emerging musical . . .

The song's signature chorus is taken from Dizzy Gillespie's introduction to "Manteca." The classic whistled opening gives way to hand claps, a Latin-tinged piano line, frenetic vibe playing and maniacal laughter.

In some neighborhoods, the song was a revelation. Where I lived in the Bronx, on Mapes Avenue off 181st Street, teenagers drove people crazy whistling the opening notes while chanting what can only be described (here, at least) as a gleefully obscene twist on Georgia.

Its bilingual lyrics and urban attitude presaged the coming boogaloo craze. The distinctly New York musical form Joe Cuba helped birth reflected the interplay (with the emphasis on play) between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in this city. Coming at the dawn of a political and cultural awakening among New York-raised Puerto Ricans, it was a heady mix.

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