Hispanic Heritage Month In Focus: Percussionist Benny Bonilla

Bonilla's skills as a member of the Peter Rodriguez band were instrumental in bringing Latin and African-American music sensibilities together.

Bonilla’s skills as a member of the Peter Rodriguez band were instrumental in bringing Latin and African-American music sensibilities together.

This is part of The Shadow League’s Hispanic Heritage Month In Focus series celebrating Latino excellence in sports and culture.

Life is a constant lesson and every phenomenon has something to teach us if we’re willing to listen. Three years ago I ran into an older gentlemen walking the red carpet at a local NYC film festival.

His name was Benny Bonilla, a legendary percussionist of Latin jazz, Latin R&B, and salsa.

He was very pleasant and inviting, which set him apart from many others who walked the carpet and spoke to the press on that day. Just when my feet and knees were about to give out, which would have forced me to leave the carpet and find a corner to sit in, a legend strode before me.

“I came here representing a documentary called ‘We Like It Like That‘, which was inspired by a song that was a big hit in 1966.  I was on that album. I am the drummer, Benny Bonilla,” said the affable musician.

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His name, though humbly and spoken in a matter of fact-ly tone, struck a chord. It wasn’t until later the significance of the man was made apparent. Benny, who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, came up during the influx of propagation of Afro-Cuban and Conga music in New York in the 1950s and his work his featured on classic offerings by Pete Rodriguez (1964), La Protesta with Tony Pabon (1970) and arranged works on “Hot and Wild-Yo Vengo Soltando Chispas, Freak Off: Latin Breakbeats, Basslines and Boogaloo (2001) and Sounds From The Spanish Harlem Streets (2007).

Pete Rodriguez – “I Like It Like That” (Live)

Pete Rodriguez returns to the stage for the first time in over 40 years!

As of late, Bonilla has served as a living vessel of history, appearing in “I Like It Like That”,”Latin Boogaloo” and the Netflix documentary “From Mambo to Hip-Hip” to bring the past into the present so that future generations can know of the significance of Latin culture on music and dance.

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“What happened was we, and another band called the Joe Hibbert Band,  were able to merge the Latin beat with the R&B dances,” said Bonilla in explaining the significant contributions of he and his contemporaries.  “We brought the African-American and Latin influences together.  That’s what formulated the Latin boogaloo.”

We Like It Like That: The Story of Boogaloo Trailer (2015)

Latin boogaloo is New York City. A bilingual mixture of R&B and Afro-Cuban rhythms and melodies, it is a product of the melting pot, a colorful expression of 1960s Latino soul, straight from the streets of El Barrio, the South Bronx and Brooklyn.

Latin boogaloo was a term I hadn’t heard up to that point in my life. I heard the phrase “electric boogaloo” in many instances. But our conversation was filled with historical references that had me doing tons of research later on.

“The style of the dance is you could do anything you want on the floor. It’s freestyle,” said Bonilla, smiling bigger and brighter with every word spoken. “Man, you go up there and you freestyle and you have a ball with your old lady, man!”

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Live bands and instruments were a must for albums of all genres at one time. However, over time live, in-studio musicians have become pushed to the margins. But talking with someone like Benny Bonilla, whose eyes lit up over the opportunity to speak about his culture, I was energized as well.

Hispanic History Month is often filled with references to people that are dead, or to some nationalist-leaning overture of one sort or another. However, with Bonilla, we see that history is a living breathing entity that can be spoken to, appreciated and celebrated while those who lived are still around.

“We Like It Like That” is currently streaming on all PBS digital platforms. 

Starting his career as lead writer for EURweb.com back in 1998, Ricardo A Hazell has served as Senior Contributor with The Shadow League since coming to the company in 2013. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the South China Sea Morning Post, the Root and many other publications. At TSL he is charged with exploring black cultural angles where they intersect with the mainstream.