JOE BATAAN / “Gypsy Woman”

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According to the latest issue (Oct/Nov ’06) of Wax Poetics, most of the big boogaloo hits were original compositions—or at least ‘original’ compositions (see last week’s Classic)—but Joe Bataan’s boogaloo classic “Gypsy Woman” is a remake, sort of. (“Gypsy Woman” is available on a Bataan compilation called Latin Funk Brother.)
The original (available on The Very Best Of The Impressions) is a Curtis Mayfield tune, as performed by Curtis’ vocal group the Impressions. It’s easy to hear why Bataan liked the Mayfield song. In the original there are both percussion cues and a slightly-odd rhythm structure that we might describe as, for lack of a better way to put it, “Latin-esque.” The irony is, Bataan’s “Gypsy Woman” is easily as different from Mayfield’s original as Joe Cuba’s “El Pito” is from the song that inspired it, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” I can’t say I’ve listened to the two versions of “Gypsy Woman” back-to-back, but the only thing the Mayfield song and the Bataan song seem to share is the title and chorus. Joe’s song is louder, wilder and considerably more infectious, both musically and lyrically.

Writers who know a lot more about boogaloo than I do have suggested that the style was created by Puerto Rican musicians attempting to appeal to Black American sensibilities. You can hear it in the grooves: if you listen to a lot of R&B, boogaloo records tend to be both instantly familiar yet simultaneously anachronistic. Sort of like the feeling I had when I ran into an old friend from New Orleans while I happened to be in San Francisco. I recognized his face, but because I was so far from home, it took a minute to put things together. In an online article titled “Boogalu,” the writer describes the disparate influences of boogaloo this way:

Boogalu resonated particularly with African-American audiences. Performers such as Jimmy Sabater and Joe Cuba clearly state that Boogalu was inspired by the interaction between African-American dancers and Latin musicians in New York at nightclubs such as Palm Gardens Ballroom. They recount stories of how the structure and tone of Boogalu songs such as “Bang, Bang” were developed in an effort to appeal to African-American dancers who were not responding to their traditional mambos and cha cha chas. Many of the Boogalu musicians report that they were also deeply influenced by the R+B, jazz and Doo Wop bands of that era. Music historian Juan Flores, in his seminal work on Boogalu entitled “Cha Cha with a Backbeat,” suggests that the song title and refrain “I Like It Like That” may have some roots in a 1961 R+B tune with the same name composed by Chris Kenner, from New Orleans.*

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I know the Chris Kenner record (available on The Chris Kenner Collection), having grown up hearing it. Frankly, I hear no connection to boogaloo at all, other than the coincidence of two songs sharing the same title. But if there is one boogaloo tune that non-aficionados of the style might know, it is indeed “I Like It (I Like It Like That).”
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Originally recorded in 1967 by Pete Rodríguez featuring lead vocalist Tony Pabón (available on I Like It Like That), it enjoyed a revival in the ‘90s when it was covered as a kind of club/salsa hybrid by Tito Nieves and the Blackout All-Stars (available on a cd single).
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Although the Tito Nieves remake was a big hit and was recorded with the participation of some very talented musicians, I find it incredibly dull, especially when compared to the original. I’m also still trying to figure out what audible contribution famed percussionists like Ray Barretto, Shelia E. and Tito Puente (all of whom were supposedly members of the All-Stars) might have made to the recording, given that the groove seems to be all drum machine all the time.
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We’ll close with one more boogaloo record, although it’s not a cover. In the Sixties, Johnny Colón was a well known band conductor and multi-instrumentalist. Today, in addition to still performing with his band, he’s the director of the East Harlem Music School which bills itself as the only music school in the world wholly dedicated to teaching salsa. I like Colón’s 1966 hit “Boogaloo Blues” for both the minute-and-a-half-long intro and the half-time groove. In contrast to the almost manic feel of most boogaloo tunes, Colón’s record refuses to get in a hurry about anything…including its own running time. Despite being essentially a groove and a chorus, “Boogaloo Blues” (available on Boogaloo Bluesman) is over seven minutes long. According to Colón’s website, “Boogaloo Blues” has sold some 3,000,000 copies worldwide. That’s impressive, particularly for a record with a potentially controversial hook like “L.S.D. has a hold on me.” (Then again, this was ’66.) Later in the record, after promising a young lady “mink coats,” “diamond rings” and “a penthouse,” Colón’s lead vocalist Tito Ramos says to the girl, “but you have to feel free”…which could mean just about anything. Moments later, Ramos dispenses with the ambiguity, saying exactly what he means: “Don’t be bashful. Take it off, honey. Take it all off.” There follows a quiet interlude, after which Ramos yells, “Yeeeaaah! We’re really having a good time now!” Hmm.

—Mtume ya Salaam

* Full article at

       I'm feeling it       

Ok, Mtume, all this boogaloo and conga drumming is going to make me want to do a week of Latin Jazz, specifically some Chucho Valdes, the giant of Afro-Cuban jazz piano, or some Ruben Blades, or even go further south and get into Venezuelan funk, not to mention Brazil. On the other hand we could go to Haiti and some vodun religious music.

I’m not totally crazy about any of these cuts, but they are triggering all kinds of musical impulses. I can feel it.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 15th, 2006 at 12:10 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “JOE BATAAN / “Gypsy Woman””

Frank McNulty Says:
October 15th, 2006 at 9:03 pm

Just a quick note to tell you how much I enjoy your “Breath of Life” site. I look forward to it each week, look at some of my favorite music through different eyes after reading your thoughts and insights. Thank you from an old school cat from Canada.

Simone Grant Says:
October 17th, 2006 at 7:34 am

I grew up listening to Marcia Griffiths reggae version of “Gypsy Man”. I never knew the original version is American, much less a Mayfield tune. Thanks for the heads up!

jeff Says:
October 19th, 2006 at 2:30 pm

check new Aaron Neville CD for a decidedly un-boogaloo version of “Gypsy Woman”.

Denise Oliver-Velez Says:
December 16th, 2006 at 7:32 pm

Am having a wonderful time reading the archives, and much to my surprise found this piece on the music of my teenage years. I was born in 1947 in NY and Latin Boogalu was the product of young Puerto Ricans and African-Americans – many of whom lived in East Harlem (El Barrio aka Spanish Harlem), where the imaginary dividing line to “black” Harlem was 5th Avenue. The projects and tenements where many of us lived were a mixture of young Blacks and Puerto Ricans. Bataan, who had an African-American mother and Filipino father, used to sit on a bench in front of the Carver projects, jamming late into the night till parents would open the window and shout for him to go to bed – in English and Spanish.

We all went to – not the Palm Gardens – an error in one of the previous posts (must mean the Colgate Gardens) and to other clubs like the Latin Gallery, Tropicoro and the Corso, to discos like the Cheetah, and the first black owned dance clubs for young folks like Lucifer’s, Othello’s and Liquid Smoke.
There were white folks hanging out too – first time I heard Bobby Caldwell he was an unknown singing in an after-hours joint in the Barrio.

We were the product of a mix of cultures. Remember that Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and his brother Louie and the Teenchords from the earlier do-wop period were a mixed black and PR group. We danced together, partied together, married each other, and shared music’s and rhythms.

I beg to differ with the piece you cited.
“Boogalu resonated particularly with African-American audiences. Performers such as Jimmy Sabater and Joe Cuba clearly state that Boogalu was inspired by the interaction between African-American dancers and Latin musicians in New York at nightclubs such as Palm Gardens Ballroom. They recount stories of how the structure and tone of Boogalu songs such as “Bang, Bang” were developed in an effort to appeal to African-American dancers who were not responding to their traditional mambos and cha cha chas.”

I have always disagreed with Juan Flores analysis:

“As neighbors and coworkers, African Americans and Puerto Ricans in New York had been partying together for many years. For decades they had been frequenting the same clubs, with Black and Latin bands often sharing the billing … African American audiences generally appreciated and enjoyed Latin music styles, yet those who fully understood the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythms and came to master the challenging dance movements remained the exception rather than the rule… Popular Latin bands found themselves creating a musical common ground by introducing the trappings of Black American culture into their performances and thus getting the Black audiences involved and onto the dance floor. “Bang Bang” by the Joe Cuba sextet and Latin boogaloo music in general was intended to constitute this meeting place between Puerto Ricans and Blacks and by extension, between Latin music and the music culture of the United States.” (Flores 2000)

They didn’t introduce “trappings” of Black American culture, there was a new culture being created. Nuyorrican culture was black and ‘rican – and Latin Boogalu was a product of culture contact – not a marketing appeal. The same young musicians who were making the scene were a part of the scene.

Latin Boogalu was not a reaction to young blacks’ inability to deal with dancing salsa. Some of the best dancers in the salsa clubs were African-American, and one of the best black disco dancers was a 6 foot tall Puerto Rican named Moses. Though America thinks the hustle was a dance style straight out of Saturday Night fever with John Revolta er, Travolta, no way in hell he and his partner would have won a dance contest in NY. The Latin Hustle was invented in a small club on 116th street in the Barrio called The Nest, and diffused out from there.

Latin Boogalu was a natural outgrowth of us all listening to the same black radio stations, dancing the bop, the slop, the monkey, as well as dancing mambos, cha-chas, boleros and salsa.

The first group in New York to hire Eddie Palmieri for a big gig (he was relatively unknown – his brother Charlie was the star) was a black social club from Hollis, Queens called the Kingsmen, which held Latin dances at the St. Albans Plaza. He was a big success and was re-booked for the next gig and the rest is history.

We’d all go downtown on Monday’s and dance to Latin bands at the Village Gate (better known for jazz) and the place was packed. One of the in-spots was a club called the Cellar, over on the west side, managed by Betty Mabry who would become Betty Davis, funk queen and wife for a brief time of Miles Davis, whose influence on his musical transformation is still not acknowledged by his biographers. The sounds of Latin Boogalu would rock the house, with segues from R&B into pure salsa.

Bataan was not the only name we knew – though his “Ordinary Guy” was a classic, and “What Good is a Castle” was an anthem for those who lived in the hood. “What good is a castle way high on a hill, when your chained down and your crippled and you’re six stories high…” had deep meaning for those trapped in the tenements of East Harlem and the way out at the time for many was sniffing a bag of dope.

That same neighborhood produced Felipe Luciano, who was a founding member of The Last Poets (precursors of rap along with Gil Scott) and later Chairman of the Young Lords Party – the group whose ideology introduced the concept of Afro-Boriqua revolutionary nationalism, which I was a part of. We held our biggest fund-raiser at the Apollo theatre – bringing together both sides of Harlem.

I realize I’m getting long winded here (still upset by Flores comments). Want to mention a few other favorites from that period – Ralfi Pagan and also the LeBron Brothers, and Ricardo “Ricky” Ray.

Hope you’ll cover some of them too one day – meanwhile I’ll keep reading.

Thanks for this space.

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