Words by Chief Boima
I’m not “Latino” or a native-Spanish speaker, so I may have been a little “late” the first time I heard this song. I don’t really look back on it with childhood nostalgia when I hear it (although when I see the fashion in the video…!). But when I did finally come across it, it definitely left an impression, helping to direct my journey into Spanish-language music which continues on through to today.
It was my Boliviana girlfriend who put this on in her car when we were driving around San Francisco one day. When the sappy crooning and digital piano intro came on, I thought it was some cheesy Spanish singer like… (well I shouldn’t name names, but those who know, know what I’m talking about.) I sunk in my seat, and waited for the out-of-tune sappiness to subside. Then, all of a sudden a high pitched raggamuffin voice jumps in, a reggae piano plinks over a 90’s dancehall drum beat, and an oh-too-familiar baseline welcomes me home. Wires in my brain got crossed, and my mind was blown.
Taking a cue from the success of Panamanians like El General and Nando Boom in the states in the early 90’s, Big Boy was singing mainstream Reggae en Español hits that reached pan-American audience when the music was still “Underground” back in Puerto Rico. It is the cognitive dissonance in this song (from his 2nd album in 1996) that really make it stand out. But if I think about it, it’s that characteristic, the fluidity, that is symbolic of my acquaintance with and enjoyment of any music out of Latin America. Shared language allows Spanish speakers (or similarly intelligible Portuguese) to enjoy a style of music beyond its roots of origin. That’s why pre-Internet, you have Cumbieros from Argentina to Mexico, Reggaetoneros from PR to Peru, Soukous Bachata Hybrids from DR to Colombia and Reggae en Español(eros) from Panama to Bolivia.
Through the course of dating, I would make many more surprising musical discoveries. It came as a big surprise to me to find out that another big reggae en Español song from the same era, was by a group of Bolivians . It was an even bigger surprise when I learned that among my girlfriend and her Bolivian friends, what I called “dancehall,” they called “cumbia.” This was around the same time the “nu-cumbia” idea was taking off in the non-Spanish speaking world, and while plenty a gringo was trying to find out where the connections of supposedly disparate styles were coming from, I was keenly aware that these types of connections had been happening all along (<– you should really be following those links).
Before the day we were driving around San Pancho, I had already been aware of musical boundary blurrers from the Spanish-Speaking world such as Orishas, Yerba Buena, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Ozomatli, Celso Piña (especially Toy Selectah’s productions), Manu Chao, and Sargento Garcia. And, soon after hearing the Big Boy song, I would make a indelible trip to the epi-center of Caribbean music crossovers, Panama. But it was the Big Boy tune that really stuck with me as emblematic of the supposedly vast musical abysses Latino musicians were willing to cross–and part of the reason I’ve been inspired to cross them myself.