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Ahh Beep Beep

Stickball player  & Music Great Joe Cuba Click for bigger picture
Stickball player & great musician Joe Cuba

El Barrio, the section of Manhattan also known as "Spanish Harlem" has been the source of many notable people and cultural trends. Gilbert Calderon is a prime example of the neighborhood's great tradition.

For those who might not recognize the name, Gilbert, aka Sonny to his friends is most widely known as Joe Cuba, a major contributor to the musical forms of Bogaloo, Latin Jazz and Salsa. Joe was a also a stickball, baseball and basketball player back in the 40's and 50s.

Joe was born and raised in an apartment building at 62 east 115th street. His father, owned a candy store located on the ground floor and started a club called the Devils. Joe explained, "One of the club's main activities was stickball. Everyone from the block would come down and hang out at the store, talking about the game from the previous week and about the team we'd be playing next week"

Joe continued, "Stickball was a central part of the neighborhood. Of course back then the cops used to bust up the games and break the sticks, but we got good at hiding the equipment and running away from them. The Devils became a neighborhood tradition, known for their great teams through the years, and the club had guys from all ages. There were the Devil Seniors, Devil Juniors and Young Devils. In fact the Young Devils later became the name of the neighborhood Stickball League."

"There was actually a connection between my playing ball and playing music. I starting getting involved with music in early 50s when I was 19 years old. I broke my leg playing stoop ball, sliding into the sidewalk of all things, so I asked my friend to lend me his conga. My leg was up in a cast and I couldn't do anything, so for the next few months, I practiced in the house and on the block all the time. I hung out with this guy Santos Mirando who was a great Timbaleros players."

"In 1954 I organized my group and had my agent try to get us a job in the Stardust Ballroom. The owner booked us but when he heard my name he said 'no one is going to want to come hear a guy with a name like that. He needs a stage name. Let's call him Joe Cuba.' It was just something he made up.

"Anyway, my agent told me about the gig but he didn't tell me about the name. Later that week, I opened up the paper to look for the advertisement and saw this guy Joe Cuba was playing. I called up my agent and said "Who is that schmuck Joe Cuba who stole my job?' He said 'Man that's you.' "

Over the years Joe has worked with a number of great musicians including Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Judy Garland.. He wrote and performed several top 40 hits including Bang Bang a song which was a number 1 hit in the world in 1967 and El Pito ("I never go back to Georgia"). Joe is often described as the founder of the Boogaloo.

Last year, Efrain Suarez a well known neighborhood activist in East Harlem established the Museum de la Salsa - located between 116th and 117th and Third Ave. Joe is now the Museum's Director and welcomes us all to stop by to learn more about East Harlem's proud musical heritage.

Back to El Barrio


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