By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Lauryn Levin.
Spanglish Fly of NYC is bringing back the boogaloo. The once thought-of-as-dead Latin style of music born out of El Barrio in Harlem is getting life breathed back into it by a select few in the area. They’re not even afraid to say that they’re revivalists since the music hit New York at a pivotal point in its cultural history in the 1960s, solidifying itself as an important marker of time in the musical landscape.
Though the band has a retro sound and look, you really couldn’t argue that everything about Spanglish Fly is stuck in the past as the music itself is made by living, breathing musicians of the modern age. In a way, Spanglish Fly is a band of musical historians looking to educate the masses about Latin Soul from New York sans the treatment of boring PBS specials, but packed and sweaty dance floors instead. BTR was able to speak with the leader of the band Jonathan Goldman, aka DJ Jonny Semi-Colon, about the people’s history of boogaloo and what they’re doing now to incite the revivalist movement.
To get into how Spanglish Fly was formed, it is imperative to understand exactly why Goldman wanted to bring back this style of music that burned out just as quickly as it came. Told by the historian himself, Latin Boogaloo entered the cultural consciousness in the late-‘60s in the Spanish Harlem district of New York City—“like a firework, just went up in the air and burst and then came down in a shower of flaming ash and then it was gone.”
Goldman remarks on a “culture of dancing” in which freestyle dancing was the norm for boogaloo but for most other Latin genres the standard was “partnered dancing with specific steps.”
“Boogaloo came along at a time when I think there was a utopian moment in certain areas of American society. There was this idea that things like music could break down barriers between cultures and between classes or at least temporarily give the sense that a group of people all in one room, by virtue of the experience they’re having of the music and the dancing, were not separate,” says Goldman about the cultural context of boogaloo.
The simple reason why Goldman wanted to revive boogaloo was “the way [he] saw people respond to it.” He says that boogaloo is “aimed towards the booty,” and seeing how people get the urge to dance when in its presence gave him all of the inspiration to play it. Goldman officially put the band together in 2009 after getting an inkling of what might happen.
He was DJ’ing at the time and when he mixed in boogaloo to his cuts, something happened in the room where everyone flocked to the dance floor when they “heard that boogaloo-cha rhythm.” He started to “get people together” to form the perfect boogaloo band from people he met or friends of friends. He had a routine of how he shaped his accompanying musicians to play out, where “as soon as [he] had the same group of people at two rehearsals in a row, [he] booked a show.”
One unique aspect of Spanglish Fly’s music is the repurposing of the music in a retro sense, as there’s an inherent silliness in the music that they capture. One such example of this is in the song “My Shingaling Boy” where the lead vocalist Erica Ramos calls out, “Turn up the volume, ladies! I’ve got a story to share with you and are not gonna wanna miss this,” in a fashion not all that different from the radio DJ in The Warriors.
“Boogaloo was a genre that had a mixture of down, dirty, and gritty because that’s the booty-shakin’ aspect of it and the ‘Uhh yeah, I feel that’ aspect of it but then there’s a fun goofiness to it as well which comes from innocent-ish moments of what you hear on 1966 AM radio. There was a lot of bubblegum going on at the time and a lot of the boogaloo genre played into that. I think it’s great, it makes it fun,” says Goldman on the band’s willingness to keep things silly.
In creating a retro-ish style of music where you’re directly referencing a certain time period and certain culture, it begs the question of whether or not you’re rehashing old news or creating something new out of the old. For Spanglish Fly, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Goldman references the retro soul movement from the Daptone camp in Brooklyn, but he says that you can’t say Sharon Jones sounds like “Mary Wells in 1965” because it can only come from now.
Spanglish Fly goes about their sound in the same way where they are looking back to an old style, though in contrast to Daptone where SF are “not purists about it.” Goldman insists their take on the genre doesn’t go overboard with flare, but you might hear “New Orleans R&B” or something “like it comes from hip-hop, it’s not going to sound like hip-hop but it might sound like it comes from somebody who knows what hip-hop is.”
The strange dualism makes Spanglish Fly an interesting case of modern “retromania.” While styling themselves predominantly as something of a tribute act, they still cement themselves in “the now” by virtue of being from no other time but now.
Spanglish Fly’s last official release was Latin Soul y Bugalu back in the first-term Obama days of 2010. The band has released intermittent singles here and there, a format which Goldman says he is interested in “the concept” of. He promises a new full-length from SF, which should prove to be “the big statement that a lot of [their] fans have been waiting for.”
They are in the middle of tracking an hour’s worth of music, though he asks we don’t quote him on the length. Though the sheer amount of music they’re planning to release goes in opposition to the general shorter length of albums these days, they never signed a contract to follow suit with the times.
To Jonathan Goldman’s knowledge, there are “three active boogaloo bands in the United States” so it’s hard to tell if we’re on the precipice of a full-on revival. However, he compared what’s happening now to the genre to the afrobeat of yesteryear where now it has undergone a complete revitalizaton partly led by one of his primary influences, Antibalas.
“Now every 23 year-old dude with a saxophone coming out of the music program at Bard, or University of Rochester, or Syracuse, comes to New York looking for his afrobeat band. You never know, nobody could have foreseen that. I’m not saying Spanglish Fly is spearheading some sort of nationwide boogaloo revival, but it is.”
Join the boogaloo army with Spanglish Fly by clicking here.
Check out Spanglish Fly’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.