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Menaito Mania hit Colombia hard in 1992. By the time my family arrived for Christmas vacation that year the Reggae en Español thumper had the whole Magdalena River percolating. In Honda, Tolima at my Abuelita’s nochebuena party, young and old were sliding to it, at a friends hacienda my uncle was drinking aguardiente to it, and at some kids birthday party at “El Club” (the all purpose city social club) a 10 year old American boy (me) with a bowl cut, glasses—size 1992—and an early crustache, was gyrating across the dance floor with reckless swagger.
The group line dance was supposed to look like this:
…but it did not. The next time we came to Colombia “El Club” was closed.
Before we returned to Kinderhook, NY, my cousin dubbed us a cassette of El Meneaito. A few weeks later I taught a few of my friends the dance moves and we performed it for show and tell at my all gringo school. That school? Also now closed—it has been repurposed as an art gallery by Jack Shaiman.
You might think that I was responsible for bringing the first Reggeaton (what the Reggae en Espanol genre morphed into) to the US but check the lyrics. It was already everywhere except Kinderhook:
En Nueva York lo bacilan sin parar
en Panamá la tierra del Sol pa’ gozar
en Venezuela les gustan porque quieren bailar
aquí está Gaby que te viene a cantar.
El meneaito, el meneaito, el meneaito, el meneaito, el
meneaito, el meneaito y ahí, ahí, ahí, ahí, ahí, ahí.
Gaby was part of the Reggae en Español (or ‘Plena’) movement in Panama’s Afro-Panamanian cities and neighborhoods in which Spanish lyrics were sung and rapped over Jamaican ‘riddims,’ most importantly, Shabba Ranks’ ‘Dem Bow.’ He wasn’t the first or the most famous. Most trace the phenomenon back to the year 1977, the same year the Torrijos-Carter treaties gave control of the Panama Canal zone—where tens of thousands of West Indian immigrants lived and worked—back to Panama. At this point there was a freer blending of Latin and West Indian cultures across the Isthmus.
This article from Remezcla by Eduardo Cepeda tells us that Reggae en Español possibly began on the Diablo Rojo buses of Panama City which were all in competition to attract riders through their vibrant colors and blaring sound-systems.
“Five young rastafarians boarded one of the buses that regularly stopped in Panama City’s traditionally West Indian Río Abajo neighborhood, and handed the driver a cassette. Some of the music was custom-written for the driver, who paid the young dreadlocked men to write songs extolling his virtues — not just as a motorist, but also as a lover, and all-around badass — hoping to attract more customers.
Gaby and his DJ Orlando Lindsay had their own bus campaign, “Super Original Sound (SOS)”—they would play their SOS mixtapes over the bus sound systems to generate interest in their, “paseos nocturnos” or night parties in local parks. Out of that time of fierce competition on the buses a lot of great Plena music was born including El Meneaito in 1987. The song didn’t have commercial success however until it was released on a mixtape from a Colombian label in 1990 which peaked in popularity in Colombia around the time I arrived in 92′.
Eventually that music hit New York City and the island of Puerto Rico and morphed into reggeaton. So, that means if there was no Meneaito (and other Plena hits from more famous Panamanian singers like Renato and El General) there would be no Despacito.
Some of my fondest memories of Colombia were at Honda’s “El Club Recreativo”—the place that hosted the birthday party where we learned to Meneaito. The grown ups would always sit around the little tables telling amazing stories and gossip while drinking refajo and eating platters of thin steak, eggs, rice and pataconas. As kids, we would run over and lean against their sides, eat a few salty pataconas and then run away and jump back in the pool. It was really the center of the towns social life for many generations.
I still make pataconas today quite often, especially since my wife Zoraida and I both grew up with them. Her family is from Colombia’s neighbor, Panamá, specifically the city of Colón which, besides the Rio Abajo neighborhood in Panama City, was the biggest hotbed for Reggae en Español in the country. Sometimes when we’re making patacones or other foods that remind us jointly of childhood visits to Panama and Colombia we’ll put some of that music on, although Zoraida always says, “we were more ‘El General’ people” when I try to tell her about El Meneaito.