Monday, February 16, 2009

Joe Cuba 1931-2009

It is with great sadness, that I share with you the passing of one of the greats, Joe Cuba. Over the weekend, I had heard that Joe Cuba had passed and wanted to get a proper obit before I shared the news. I talked to Willie over the phone about it and he mentioned that Aurora Flores (ZBD) was working on one at the request of the family, and she posted it to the Latin Jazz E Group (see below). Before we get to the Aurora's words I'd like to share a little of my experience with Joe.

I was barely 20 and it was still a couple of years till I would get heavily into classic "Salsa" and Afro Cuban roots music. I was heavily into the rap music of our day (i.e., Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Common, Black Moon) which I felt at that time was starting to loose steam. I used this lack of inspiration to dig deeper into the roots of the music that I loved for so long, and it was there that I discovered artists such as Marvin Gaye, The Jazz Messengers, James Brown, Jon Lucien, Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Osibisa, Willie Bobo, Roy Ayers, The Mohawks, Jimmy Castor, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente, Stevie Wonder, etc... While it may have seemed that I was starting to regress, it was in the music of late 60's, 70's, early 80's that I found the motivation to collect as much information as I could in as little time as I could, but it wasn't until I saw Spike Lee's "Crooklyn, that I my quest would take a resounding turn.

It was the scene in which the young protaganist, "Troy" walks into the Bed Stuy bodega to steal some snacks with her friend, that you can hear Joe Cuba's, "I'll Never Go Back to Georgia", in the background. It was right there that I must have rewinded the movie 3 or 4 times, because I couldn't get enough of the music. That was it, out of all the musical forms that I had listened to previously, it was Joe Cuba which propelled me the furthest. It is safe to say, that If I had never heard "I'll Never Go Back to Georgia", I would not only not be writing this anecdote right now, but I just as readily say that this blog would not exist as well. I don't know if Joe knew the amount of influence that he had on the people that grew up on, or heard his music, but I for one am very grateful to the man for his contribution...

Joe Cuba: The Father of New York Boogaloo has passed

By Aurora Flores

The "Father of Boogaloo," Joe Cuba, passed away on Sunday, February
15, 2009 at 4 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. He was the most
popular exponent of the boogaloo, a fused Latino and R&B rhythm that
exploded onto the American top 40s charts during the turbulent 1960s &
`70s. Hits such as "Bang Bang," "Push Push," "El Pito," "Ariñañara,"
and "Sock It To Me Baby," rocked the hit parades establishing Joe Cuba
and his Sextet as the definitive sound of Latin New York during the
`60s & `70s. The Joe Cuba Sextet's unusual instrumentation featured
vibraphones replacing the traditional brass sound. His music was at
the forefront of the Nuyroican movement of New York where the children
of Puerto Rican emigrants, America's last citizens, took music,
culture, arts and politics into their own hands.

Joe Cuba's Sextet became popular in the New York Latino community
precisely because it fused a bilingual mix of Afro-Caribbean genres
blended with the popular urban rhythm & blues of its time creating a
musical marriage between the Fania and Motown sound. His was the first
musical introduction to Latin rhythms for many American aficionados.
The lyrics to Cuba's repertoire mixed Spanish and English, becoming an
important part of the emerging Nuyorican identity.

"Joe Cuba's music validated the developing Nuyorican population whose
language and music Cuba captured with his sound," underlines Giora
Breil, CEO of Emusica, the company that now owns the Fania label and
who has remastered many of the classics to a new generation of music
lovers. "He led the urban tribe," pointed Breil, "into a united front
of cultural warriors that were defining the social and political times
they lived in."

Longtime manager and promoter Hector Maisonave recalls Cuba as "an
innovator who crossed over into mainstream music at an early time. He
was the soul of El Barrio. After Joe Cuba, El Barrio is just a street
that crosses an avenue."

In 1962, Cuba recorded "To Be With You" with the vocals of Cheo
Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater whose careers he spotlighted after the
bands introductory appearance at the Stardust Ballroom prior to its
summer stint in the Catskills.

Born in 1931 in the heart of Spanish Harlem, his Puerto Rican parents
arrived in New York City in the 20s. Christened "Gilberto Miguel
Calderón," Cuba was a "doo wopper" who played for J. Panama in 1950
when he was a young 19 year old before going on to play for La
Alfarona X, where the young "congüerro/" percussionist replaced Sabu
Martinez tapped to play with Xavier Cugat.

By 1965, the Sextet got their first crossover hit with the Latino and
soul fusion of "El Pito" (I Never Go Back To Georgia), a tune Cuba
recorded against the advice of the producer later to be "broken" by a
DJ over WBLS FM in N.Y.. The Dizzy Gillespie "Never Go Back To
Georgia" chant was taken from the intro to the seminal Afro-Cuban
tune, "Manteca." Vocalist Jimmy Sabater later revealed that "none of
us had ever been to Georgia." In fact, Cuba later comically described
a conversation he had with the Governor of Georgia who called him
demanding why he would record a song whose chorus negatively derided
the still segregated Southern town. The quick thinking Joe Cuba
replied, "Georgia is the name of my girl."

In 1967, Joe Cuba's band --–with no horns– scored a "hit" in the
United States National Hit Parade List with the song "Bang Bang" - a
tune that ushered in the Latin Boogaloo era. He also had a #1 hit,
that year on the Billboard charts with the song "Sock It To Me Baby."
The band's instrumentation included congas, timbales, an occasional
bongo, bass, piano and vibraphone. "A bastard sound," is what Cuba
called it pointing to the fans, the people, as the true creators of
this music. "You don't go into a rehearsal and say `Hey, let's invent
a new sound, or dance.' They happen. The boogaloo came out of left
field. " Joe Cuba recounts in Mary Kent's book:" Salsa Talks: A
Musical History Uncovered. "It's the public that creates new dances
and different things. The audience invents, the audience relates to
what you are doing and then puts their thing into what you are
playing," pointing to other artists such as Ricardo Ray or Hector
Rivera as pioneers of the urban fused rhythm.

"I met Joe up in the Catskills in 1955," recalls nine time Grammy
Award winner Eddie Palmieri. "When I later started La Perfecta,"
Palmieri muses, "we alternated on stages with Joe. He was full of life
and had a great sense of humor, always laughing at his own jokes,"
chuckles the pianist. Palmieri pointed to Cuba's many musical
contributions underlining the power and popularity of his small band
and bilingual lyrics while providing a springboard for the harmonies
and careers of Cheo Feliciano, Willie Torres and Jimmy Sabater. "He
was Spanish Harlem personified," describes Palmieri recalling the
"take no prisoners" attitude Cuba had when it came to dealing with
those who reluctantly paid the musicians. Recalling their early
recording days with the infamous Morris Levy, Palmieri cites the
antics of Joe Cuba, Ismael Rivera and himself as the reason for Levy
selling them as a Tico package to Fania label owner, Jerry Masucci.

Funny, irreverent and with a great humor for practical jokes, Joe
Cuba, or Sonny as he was called by his closest friends, was raised in
East Harlem. Stickball being the main sport for young boys of the
neighborhood, Cuba's father organized a stickball club called the
Devils. After Cuba broke a leg, he took up playing the conga and
continued to practice between school and his free time. Eventually, he
graduated from high school and joined a band.

"He was not afraid to experiment," said David Fernandez, arranger &
musical director of Zon del Barrio who played with the legendary Cuba
when he arrived in New York in 2002.

By 1954, at the suggestion of his agent to change the band's name from
the Jose Calderon Sextet to the Joe Cuba Sextet, the newly named Joe
Cuba Sextet made their debut at the Stardust Ballroom. Charlie
Palmieri was musical director of the sextet before his untimely 1988
death from a heart attack.

Since then, the Joe Cuba Sextet and band has been a staple of concerts
and festivals that unite both Latinos, African-Americans and just
plain music lovers in venues all over the world.

In 2003, the following CDs were released:

* "Joe Cuba Sextet Vol I: Mardi Gras Music for Dancing"
* "Merengue Loco" and
* "Out of This World Cha Cha".

In 2004, Joe Cuba was named Grand Marshall of the Puerto Rican Day
Parade celebrated in Yonkers, New York. Musician Willie Villegas who
traveled with Joe for the past 15 years said, "It didn't matter where
we played around the world Joe would always turn to me and say, To My
Barrio…. With Love! " Joe Cuba is survived by his wife Maria Calderon,
sons Mitchell and Cesar, daughter Lisa, and grandchildren Nicole and

Condolences can be sent directly to Joe Cuba's widow: Maria Calderon @

More information on Joe Cuba's viewing will be forthcoming within the
next few days.


(Joe Cuba Sextet - "Bang, Bang", Video Credit: chinorm)


Anonymous said...

Nicely done! As a member of the Joe Cuba Sextet, for the past 12 years, it is nice to know that there are so many fans and respectful admirers of JC's music. His legacy will live on for generations to come. We hope to keep his music alive and continue to play his music for the rest of our lives. Joe will be dancing his butt off to it of that I am certain and giving his proverbial hissing cue for the moña or brake. I'll miss you my friend and mentor. Love you always.
-Angel Morales

Sentimiento Manana said...

Thank you for sharing Angel, it was Aurora who did the obit piece, and I just wanted to share a little of the influence that he had on me...Joe Cuba was definitely a pioneer