[T]here had been precedents by the time the Joe Cuba Sextet's releases filled dance floors in 1966, and there were other Latin acts who cut successful boogaloo records, but none of them became as identified with the style in the minds of non-Latinos. … Formed in 1954 from the remnants of the Joe Panama Quintet, the group consisted of vocalist Willie Torres, pianist Nick Jiménez, bassist Ray Roy Rosa, Jimmy Sabater on timbales, Tommy Berríos on vibraphone and leader Gil Calderón pounding the congas. Calderón got the stage name "Joe Cuba" from the owner of one of the clubs where they played. Cheo Feliciano took over lead vocalist duties when Torres quit in 1957 to sing with the José Curbelo Orchestra, and shortly thereafter, Jules Cordero replaced Ray Roy Rosa. The Sextet's appeal to English-speaking crowds had much to do with their unusual habit of putting English-language lyrics to Latin dance numbers. They were among the first Latin acts to do so. Cheo Feliciano has confirmed this to interviewer Abel Delgado. "When I came into the group, they had instituted many English tunes," he recalled. "Willie Torres…used to sing most of the tunes in English even though they were salsa. We did all the (English) tunes because we used to cater to a Jewish crowd, to an Italian crowd, to black American crowds, and to Latinos, too. Crossover (for Latin bands) really started with Joe Cuba.” —From “Mambo Gee Gee: The Story Of George Goldner And Tico Records”
Back in July, in a post about Dizzy Gillespie and the genealogy of Latin Jazz, Kalamu talked about “Manteca,” a tune composed by Gillespie along with famed Cuban congo player Chano Pazo. Recently, I accidentally came across a connection to that song. I was checking out the history of something called ‘boogaloo,’ a short-lived Latin musical craze that both hit and ended in the late Sixties. It turns out that one of the biggest boogaloo songs was the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “El Pito,” a million-seller that, along with another big hit of theirs, “Bang Bang,” established the Cuba Sextet as the most popular Latin band of the time. (Both songs are available on The Best Of Joe Cuba Sextet.) joe cuba 01.jpg From the first time I heard “El Pito,” I liked it a lot. Frankly, it’s hard not to. By ’66 when the song hit big, Gilberto ‘Joe Cuba’ Calderón and his band had been together for over a decade. They were accomplished club musicians who knew how to work a crowd into a dancing frenzy. The Sextet’s hit “El Pito” is one those records that has the spontaneous, improvised feel of something that one fine day in some recording studio somewhere ‘just happened,’ but I doubt it. If you pay attention, the arrangement is actually quite involved, if not actually complicated. Chances are, Calderón’s band had played “El Pito” live in dance clubs many, many times before they actually went into the studio to cut it. The infectious wildness and ‘accidental’ stops and starts are more likely the result of in-concert trial and error and in-studio professionalism rather than the ‘made on the fly’ feeling you’re left with while listening to it. dizzy 01.jpg As for the Dizzy Gillespie connection, that’s his and Chano’s bassline and melody you’re listening to. Not to mention that the “I’ll never go back to Georgia” refrain is the same one Dizzy used to intro his 1957 re-recording of “Manteca” (taken from At Newport). So, with the help of Chano Pazo, Dizzy Gillespie created Latin Jazz by borrowing the percussion instruments and cadences of Cuba. A decade later, Puerto Rican musicians from New York incorporated R&B and soul (and Dizzy’s bassline!) into their dance styles to come up with the first major Latin crossover hits in American pop history. It’s been mentioned before, but it’s worth mentioning again: African-derived and/or influenced music isn’t something that can be neatly categorized or organized. The music seldom, if ever, develops in neat, straight lines. Long before digital sampling, musicians felt free to borrow what they needed to express the feeling they wanted to express at the time, to say whatever they had to say. And thank goodness for that. Without that freedom, the world would be a quieter and much more boring place. Next week, look for more boogaloo tracks, including a little something from the Latin Funk Brother Joe Bataan and probably the best-known boogaloo track of all, Pete Rodriguez’ “I Like It Like That.” —Mtume ya Salaam           Latin Jazz?         What a huge misnomer, if you think about it, study the history of it. Most of us have a general idea of what Latin Jazz is, but the truth be told, it really has nothing to do with “Latin America” per se. Latin jazz is, for the most part, Salsa and Afro-Cuban music filtered through a jazz aesthetic. The main roots of Latin Jazz are Cuban first and then Puerto Rican, which essentially means African rhythms as preserved and practiced in the Caribbean context. Of course, the Bossa Nova jazz movement was huge, but check this, even though Bossa Nova is geographically more Latin Jazz than is Salsa, Bossa Nova is seldom referred to as Latin Jazz. It’s usually just called Bossa Nova. Whereas Salsa and Afro-Cuban musics are seldom called what they are: Carribean Jazz. Why? Undoubtedly, it's easier to type Latin than it is to type Caribbean. Plus, back in the Sixties, most mainstream typewriters had a hard time typing "African" and then if they did, they would have to explain how something that came from the Western Hemisphere could be African, which, by extension, is a denial of the fact that a great deal of the population of the Western Hemisphere is African, which, if you acknowledge that, inevitably forces you to end up talking about how Africans became Americans (or Latins, or Caribbean, or whatever the West calls us other than "African"). I think what the music is called gets all mixed up mainly because the namers of the music are mixed up (politically, socially, genetically, any kind of way you want to put it). The main truth is that those who control and name the music seldom tell the truth about the origins and social foundations of the music. All of which is to say, BoL will featur a lot more so-called “Latin Jazz” (i.e. jazz that is based on African derived rhythms rather than African-American rhythms). “Swing,” for example is an African-American rhythmic concept. And for sure, whenever you hear a heavy “backbeat,” you are listening to either African-American music or music that is heavily influenced and informed by African-American musical aesthetics. To be continued; I can hardly wait…. —Kalamu ya Salaam

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7 Responses to “JOE CUBA SEXTET / “El Pito””

Kayvon Says:
October 10th, 2006 at 11:06 am

I’d just like to take issue with your last point about "swing" being an African-American rhythmic concept. Obviously "swing music" was borne from African-American jazz musicians but surely swing is a natural rhythmic concept and one that has been present in many musics across the world for thousands of years. Also, I’d guess that these concepts come and go to fulfill different purposes. I should imagine that, for arguments sake, had classical music been swung in a similar sense to what we know as "swing music", African-American musicians would have placed their emphasis somewhere else so as to define themselves and their experience.

           you are agreeing with me         

First, you state: Obviously "swing music" was borne from African-American jazz musicians… but then you say …but surely swing is a natural rhythmic concept and one that has been present in many musics across the world for thousands of years. Well, which is it? Was swing "born" in the 20th century of African-American heritage, or did swing exist for "thousands of years"? I believe swing started as you first state and that swing did not exist prior to that.

Similarly, the saxophone as a specific instrument did not always exist. However, once the instrument comes into existence anyone can play the instrument. I believe anyone can swing now that swing as a concept is established. I’m not sure what your real argument or disagreement is. Neither saxophones nor swing existed for thousands of years, or do you have some information to prove the existence of the saxophone thousands of years ago, and ditto with "swing" as a rhythmic concept? If you have the evidence, lay it on us.

I bring up saxophones as a concrete example of the basic argument. "Swing" is difficult to define, so to keep from getting hung up in a semantical argument about the definition of swing, I offer the saxophone as another example to clarify my point.  


Kayvon Says:
October 10th, 2006 at 11:17 am

Forgot to say thanks for the website. I’ve started writing replies a couple of times but never actually posted.

Also, big thanks for introducing me to Donny Hathaway.


Kayvon Says:
October 11th, 2006 at 11:58 am

Hi Kalamu, I guess what i’m trying to say is that I find it hard to believe that before African slaves were forcibly taken to the Americas, say for instance, even African musicians didn’t swing their music. I just would have thought that it would have been something that has been done for thousands of years and that it had also been picked up on by other musicians around the world. I think there must be certain themes and devices, especially rhythmic, that have been with us for a long time but that have not always been played in the same setting. ie maybe musicians had never played four beats in a bar with uneven 16ths, but certainly I think that musicians would have done a similar thing by catching notes late in relation to a regular pulse or displacing beats against one another. That is only my belief and not something I can categorically prove. To me it just seems more likely than not. So in as much, I don’t believe swing is a 19th/20th century African-American concept but I believe it is something that early musicians would have happened across in their pursuit of musical expression. Who were these first musicians and where did they come from? Well if you believe that life started in Africa then you can bet it was there where this musical phenomenon was first cultivated and expressed.

          all of history is specific         

that’s what makes it history, whether we know it or not, whether it is recorded or not, something specific happen. i do not believe in eternity, that something specific always existed. in fact, our life is nothing but a series of specifics. just because human life started in africa that in no way proves or even implies that everything humans have produced started in africa.

part of what i hear you doing is making a distinction between social production and material production. music is a product of social product. specific musical instruments are a product of material production. while most of us can easily accept that specific musical instruments came into existence at specific points in human history and that not all instruments were first produced in africa. when it comes to social production, however, we sometimes make metaphysical arguments, arguments based on ideas rather than on specifc social and material reality.

i do not argue beliefs with folk. believe what you want to believe. but if we want to argue facts, opinions, philosophies, ideologies then let’s bring it on. you admit that you have a belief and can’t prove what your believe. i was arguing about the production of a specific musical culture and my opinion about where that culture (i.e. swing) came from and when swing came into existence. to counter my argument, which makes you a bit uncomfortable, you present a belief and not one piece of evidence.

i think the discussion per se is over…


Kayvon Says:
October 11th, 2006 at 9:32 pm

I suppose I was being a little difficult just for the sake of argument. I tend to debate (or is that wildly speculate?) with intellectual/philosphical people like yourself in an effort to try and gain a better understanding of the world around me. Music is not exactly where I find the most answers, but it’s where I find the most relief.

This site is a great supplement to my music studies at the moment (I reccommended your site to my uni class) so I hope in the future we could do some more talking about black music as it’s valuable to be able to converse with people like yourself that have such an extensive knowledge of the topic in hand.

Nice one for entertaining my thoughts for a second, vague speculations I know but in the absence of hard evidence I guess that’s how you do things.

Looking forward to more music and writing,


Giancarlo Rosa Says:
February 11th, 2007 at 5:54 pm

I just want to make a correction on the story about Joe Cuba. The gentleman that was the bassist his name was ROY ROSA not Ray. I should know because he was my father. His birth name was RAUL ROSA. He’s no longer with us, he passed away on Mother’s Day 1964.

        Mtume says:       

Giancarlo, thank you for the correction.

FJ Says:
February 10th, 2012 at 10:44 pm

I think the ‘issue’ of the origin of swing is moot…

First, I have undertaken both study of European “Classical” music in a university setting and learned many “performance styles” associated with semi-ancient ‘musics.’ Embellishments are a key concept of Baroque (hundreds of years ago) music, and others. But I’ve also learned some of the great tradition borne of the Mali Empire (many hundreds more from the distant past), specifically, the techniques and rhythms of west African “Classical” music. Note that such music is primarily drumming, and always associated with dance. Dance music MUST swing, becausee dancers aren’t robots that can instantly change tempo… they express emotions subtly, and hence so do the music makers producing their soundtrack.

“Swing” as a term in musicology was born in the U.S. and refers to a style of music that is Jazz and yet involves subtle changes in tempo that form an expression similar to how Africans in Africa do it. They will stretch and stress the rhythm in complex yet subtle, intriguing ways. So does the U.S. music we call Swing with a capital S. Hence to me, there is no argument. Unless someone claims it wasn’t invented by so-called “black” people. Heck, it was Africans, however you choose to describe them. All I’m saying is we know for sure that swinging has been happening in Africa (and notably India and elsewhere that dance and music are married) for several hundreds of years (and likely millenia). Peace!

FJ Says:
February 10th, 2012 at 11:00 pm

And it’s not simply subtle changes in tempo, swinging is primarily a way of re-interpreting and playing simple figures (rhythmic “motifs”) in what could simplistically be called “stretchy” ways.

This means whereas a simple figure of 6/8 time called the dotted quarter + eighth (quarter note aka “crotchet” worth two “quavers” or eighth notes) produces a poetic Trochee (DUM – da) [continuously repeating] pattern that may have either a strict 3 “feel,” as written, or a swinging feel where the quarter note gets an extra dot and the second note is halved, or some other mutation that gives the rhythm a different flavor. There are other variants… see Cuban music for more, e.g.

The key to swing music notation is that subtle stretching of the rhythms need not be notated for experienced players, just as figured bass notation need not be explained to experienced continuo (harpsichord, cello/bass) players in order for them to interpret it well.

Sorry, long explanation for a simple concept. Dancers know the difference without all the technical explanation and know what they like about it (there is implicit emotion in swinging any number of ways–check out Flamenco and Romantic Classical styles [“rubato” is only a part of the latter] for more of this, too). 🙂

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