Hispanic Heritage Month: Influential Percussionist Benny Bonilla

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 gentleman 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.

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).

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-Hop” to bring the past into the present so that future generations can know of the significance of Latin culture on music and dance.

“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.

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 But our conversation was filled with historical references that had me doing tons of research later on.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!”

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.

Then, of course, Cardi B had her greatest hit when the Bronx rapstress, Bad Bunny & J Balvin remixed the hit in the smash single “I Like It.” The success of the song is a testament to a sound that has withstood the test of time and changing musical genres and cultures.

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.